Do You Let Your Kids Play With Water Guns (or, What Toys Don’t You Let Your Kids Play With?)?

Do You Let Your Kids Play With Water Guns and Other Toy Weapons: A Discussion with Working Moms

It’s the season for outdoor water fun — swimming, running through sprinklers, etc. — so we thought it would be a good time to ask: Do you let your kids play with water guns and other toy weapons, such as Nerf guns? For his birthday last year, my son got one of those giant, Super Soaker-type of water guns (from a classmate), and this year for his birthday he received a Nerf gun (also from a friend — not us). He’s been asking for a Nerf gun for a long time and was so excited to get one. The kids’ parents didn’t know that we hadn’t given him any toy guns (I’m not a big fan), and in the end, we’ve let him play with the gifts (although we do have rules, such as “Don’t ever aim them at people or animals”).working moms discuss whether they let their kids play with water guns or other gun toys

If you want to keep your kids away from toy guns, a total ban seems impossible. If you prohibit them from playing with water guns and other weapon-like toys, won’t they just go and use them at a friend’s house and/or get invited to a “Nerf Wars” type of party for a friend’s birthday? (My son, who’s in primary school, has gone to two so far.) Or does it make a difference if you personally show your disapproval? Some parents just give up and go along with with the (stereotypical) reasoning that “Boys will turn anything into a gun anyway.” If we give our kids water guns and so on, should that enter at all into our conversations with them about, for example, why their school has lockdown drills? Do kids really look at violence or guns any differently when they play with toy guns.

I’ll admit that I haven’t been motivated enough to do any Googling about the effects of playing with toy guns, and whether my uneasiness is warranted — and when I finally did, er, today, I learned that research hasn’t found a link between violent play as a child and violent behavior as an adult. Many studies have drawn conclusions like that of this one, as summarized by Slate: “[W]hen kids incorporate violence into their pretend play, they may learn how to control real violent impulses and regulate their emotions.”

So, do tell: Do you let your kids play with water guns and other toy weapons? If not, why — and if so, what are your ground rules (and the conversations you’ve had with your kids about them)? Have you bought things like water guns or Nerf guns for your kids’ friends? If you prohibit toy guns at home and your child receives one as a gift (or gets one in a party favor bag) what do you do, and how do you explain it to your child? 

Further Reading:

  • It’s Fine for Kids to Play With Pretend Guns [Slate]
  • Why Boys Love Guns, and What to Do About It [CNN]
  • Boys and Guns: What’s a Parent to Do? [PBS Parents]
  • Weapons Ban: Just How Bad Are Toy Guns for Kids? [ParentMap]
  • Keeping Kids From Toy Guns: How One Mother Changed Her Mind [The Atlantic]

Pictured: Deposit Photos / leon_traut.

We asked our working mom readers: do you let your kids play with water guns? What toys do you forbid or otherwise not let your kids play with? If your kiddo is gifted a toy gun -- or goes to a house where kids play with toy weapons -- do you freak out a little bit? Great discussion among the professional working moms from all over the country!

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Water guns and nerf guns yes. Realistic looking toy guns no.

  2. Timely, since my kids just got water guns as a gift this weekend. My DH was hesitant, but we decided to let them play. We are treating them like a training – never point at people or animals. If someone is scared around it or a parent says no, you honor that immediately (no whining). Make sure to empty the water after every use and put away in the correct spot. Etc.

    We have some friends that took their (early elementary) kids to a shooting range. Their theory was that kids don’t understand the true might of a gun. So they let the kids hear the loud sound, look at the large hole in the target, discuss the destruction that it caused and how it would impact a body or pet or house. Not to scare the kids necessarily, but to demonstrate that it’s not a toy and it’s not like movies or video games.

    We’re now thinking about doing the same, although we haven’t yet decided. It’s an interesting discussion though, I’ll be following other comments.

    • Anonymous says:

      What on earth is the point of water guns if you don’t shoot water at people?!?

      • mascot says:

        We have a “no head shots” rule because turns out it’s pretty painful to take a stream of water to the eyes/face or ear. I feel kinda weird yelling “no head shots” across the yard.

      • Ha I have to agree with this. I definitely support not spraying at people who don’t want to play…but that is what you do with water guns. Also, part of me wonders if having to be so “responsible” with a toy will actually have the opposite effect in making kids think real guns are NBD. They may think the level of safety they maintain with their toy gun makes them qualified to handle a real one.

        • There are plenty of targets and other things to shoot at that aren’t people. I grew up with hunters in my family, including my dad, with lots of loaded and not-properly-stored guns in my house. We still weren’t allowed to ever point anything “gun like” at a person or animal unless we were planning to actually shoot it.

          And I don’t get that slippery slope argument at all. Kids aren’t total idiots. It’s not like making kids wear helmets on their bicycle makes them think they can drive a motorcycle. Or drinking grape juice at church makes them think they can handle wine. If you don’t teach responsibility with low risk items, how do you expect them to learn it?

      • BigLaw Sr Assoc says:

        Yeah this. I had also never thought of water guns as problematic and never saw their relation to real guns. But ymmv, as pretty sure I am in the running for Bad Mom of the Year, between this and being chastised by my kids school for driving too fast in the school parking lot/playing what them deem “inappropriate” music in my car while doing so.

        • I also don’t think as water guns as problematic, but I don’t see how you can compare that to driving too fast in the school parking lot (inappropriate music is a ridiculous complaint). Unsafe driving in a school parking lot is an actual safety concern.

        • I need to know what music you were playing now. Also, can we be friends?

  3. This would be a battle I wouldn’t win with DH. He doesn’t own any guns (other than a pellet gun) but he definitely thinks things like guns, firecrackers, etc are cool and fun. I do not. I think a total ban on gun-like toys would be hard to enforce because DH so clearly thinks they’re fun, but I certainly won’t be buying them for my kids.

    Re: play violence, I was shocked a few years ago when my 3yo niece was playing with a toy pirate ship which had cannons. She would pretend fire the cannon and then ask me to “make the pirates die”!! I have no idea how a 3yo knew that, but she definitely didn’t own any toy guns at the time. So, just banning toy guns does not prohibit violent play – I think you’d have to isolate completely from older kids to rule that out.

    • Anonymous says:

      Play violence is normal. You shouldn’t try to stop it.

    • NewMomAnon says:

      Kiddo sometimes latches onto the idea of dying and will talk about it while playing. I think she’s trying to figure out what it means; death isn’t “real” to kids for a while. I try to stress that violence *hurts* people, because kiddo understands pain.

  4. I struggle with this. I wanted to be a ‘no gun’ household but already today my 4-year old made a gun with legos and another gun out of his toast. Many of the cartoons he watches (power ranges, transformers, lego batman) have guns (though of course no graphic violence.) So part of me says, you can’t fight the tide – just let him play with toy guns.

    Then again, two weeks ago a 7-year-old boy in my state found a loaded actual gun in a box that also had a toy in it and shot himself in the head. It’s still being investigated but the reasonable assumption from people is that he just thought it was another toy.

    • Anonymous says:

      I really think those parents should be prosecuted for murder.

      • How do you know it was the parents’ gun? How do you know the parents knew it was there? How do you know he was in the parents’ home? How do you know the parents had any connection to the gun whatsoever? That’s a pretty quick jump to conclusion.

        • Still being investigated – mom swears she doesn’t own a gun and doesn’t know how it got into the house, police seem to believe her. There may be a shady boyfriend in the picture who hid the gun extremely carelessly and without her knowledge but investigation is ongoing.

          Just an awful situation.

          To Anonymous at 12:25 – agree the careless gun owner should prosecuted. 3 or 4 other kids lived in the home too.

  5. Anonymous says:

    This is one subject where my background is so different than many opinions on this site. I grew up with a dad and many extended family members who hunt. We routinely hosted family and friends in our home to hunt with my dad. In addition, my grandfather was a policeman and had various handguns that were passed to his children as historical items. My dad also has some antique hunting guns from his grandparents. But my dad, our relatives, and his friends are very responsible and taught us how to be responsible with them in the house. My dad’s pretty hardcore about safety. I am not sure ammunition ever really even entered our house. We almost only had it in season, and my dad usually kept it in his truck. I think he would stick leftovers out of reach in our garage or something if he even kept them. We have no interest in guns or activities that involve guns so do not have any. The bigger issue is when my dad is gone, he wants a lot of that stuff to stay in the family. But it will probably go to some of my male cousins, maybe my nephew (my dad’s only grandson) if he is interested.

    I truly haven’t made up my mind on gun issues. In theory, I support responsible gun ownership, but am becoming more and more realistic that too many people aren’t responsible.

    Bright neon water guns are okay in book. I’d hesitate on something realistic looking. I have a timid daughter who is 100% girl, so I think I might get off the hook on a lot of the toy gun issues.

    • Anonymous says:

      I mean, the dead don’t get a vote Dad.

      • Anonymous says:

        Right? My sister (nephew’s mom) is very anti-gun. So I think Dad just hopes nephew is old enough to decide for himself when the time comes. I’m feeling so morbid saying this. My dad isn’t old and is very healthy. Nephew definitely should be in that position. But in all honesty, these family antiques would mean more to my cousins who also grew up hunting and are old enough to have memories from the people they came from.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I think that unfortunately this question also brings up one regarding race and prejudice. As a woman of color and a soon-to-be mother of a son, I understand that a black child wielding a toy gun unfortunately has the potential for dire consequences for him. I believe your initial worry was encouraging violent play, but the perception of violence in children of color is already unfairly a reality, and I know that I personally will not want this to be a situation my son will have to face. I do remember playing with super soaker water guns as a little girl and it was fun, but also in my backyard, away from prying eyes…

    • I’m sorry your comment was in moderation for a while! Yes, definitely — thank you for mentioning this. I am sorry that this is something you’ll even have to think about as a parent. I recognize that those of us with white privilege — me included — are free to consider the topic of toy guns without having to worry that our children could lose their lives for holding one.

  7. mascot says:

    We allow water guns, nerf guns, and laser tag guns. At some point, we will also allow exposure to riflery through summer camp or scouts or the like. Pellet guns are a lot stronger than the BB guns we had growing up so I’m not inclined to encourage those.
    And honestly, to TK’s horror story mentioned above, I see that more as an issue of horribly irresponsible gun storage than an increased attraction to guns stemming from having toy guns. Nerf guns and other brightly colored pieces of plastic make it easy to tell fake from real. Kids also need to know what to do if they see a possible gun- treat it like a snake, don’t touch, go tell a grown up. Even then, a child shouldn’t be stumbling across an unsecured, loaded weapon- this is a failure on the part of an adult.

  8. shortperson says:

    i am 100% for any gun regulation we can get, and would ban most guns if it were up to me. but i have no problem with nerf and water guns that do not look or function like the real thing and are played with other consenting kids (or adults)

    • Anonymous says:

      Yes ditto.

    • Mrs. Jones says:

      +1

    • Anonymous says:

      Exactly this. My parents (especially my mom) are the most anti-gun people I have ever met. Way back in the early 80s my mom asked people if they had guns before I could go to their house and if they owned a gun I could not go there ever, even if they assured my mom it was locked up, ammunition stored separately, etc. I often heard my mother ranting about how terrible it was that the neighbor boys played with BB guns. But I had neon-colored water guns (we called them super soakers not guns). It’s so totally different than a real gun in form and function.

    • +1. Water squirters are fine, but if it looks like a gun then nope. Also, I’m that mom that asks about guns in homes before my children go on playdates. This question has resulted in the loss of one friend relationship because the family was so offended that I would 1) even ask and then 2) not allow my children in a home that had multiple guns with questionable safe storage practices. Listen, I cannot protect my children from everything, but I damn well do my best when I can.

    • Spirograph says:

      Yes to all of this. Brightly colored nerf guns and water guns are OK, like colored foam swords and shields. No head shots for anything, and if someone doesn’t want to play, you don’t shoot/hit them. Hard no for real-looking weapons.

      My kids turn sticks into guns, so telling them no gun play is a non-starter. Instead, we talk about how weapons can kill people, which makes people scared and upset, and they need to respect it if their friends don’t want to play those games. We also talk about how they need to do the Eddie Eagle sequence: Stop, Don’t Touch, Leave the Area, Tell an Adult if they ever see a gun that isn’t one of their toys, no matter what. If you and your friend find a gun, you leave. If your friend won’t leave with you, leave anyway.

      My dad has always owned lots of guns, but they are kept in locked safes. My husband has a handgun that is in a locked safe, ammo locked in a different safe, and both in an area of our house where kids aren’t allowed/don’t play. We plan to let the kids shoot a real handgun at a target when we visit my dad later this year. I am 95% sure this will scare the @#%*& out of my weapons-obsessed son, which is exactly what I’m going for. The message will be : Guns are NOT toys, they destroy things. Responsible adults (and kids with a responsible adult) can enjoy target shooting or hunting as a hobby, but you do it with range rules, ear protection, etc to make sure everyone is safe.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Water guns that don’t look like real guns are okay in our house. Kids are allowed to spray water at each other with them. I think of them as more analogous to a garden hose than a real gun. Also sometimes refer to them as water squirters. We don’t do any other toy guns and don’t allow them to pretend to shoot/hurt toys or each other.

  10. rosie says:

    We are not at that point yet because of age, but I think we will probably allow nerf/water guns that clearly look like toys. We will also teach our child to treat guns or things that look like guns as loaded no matter what anyone tells her, go tell an adult if she sees one, do not touch it, etc.

    I am really concerned about the increasing number of real guns that look like toys. This seems likely to heighten the already unacceptable risk that children, particularly POC children, will be hurt or killed for playing with a toy. If cloves are illegal because they might appeal to kids too much, how can we justify allowing guns that look like cell phones?

    • This! I was in a gun store (related to DH’s job) and saw these tiny bright pink and purple handguns. They are insane. They look like toys or a Barbie gun. They are light too. A glock for example is pretty heavy, hard to hold accurately and has a strong trigger that would be difficult for a tiny hand to manage. The pink and purple “lady” guns would be easy for a small child to pick up, mistake for a toy and shoot.

      • rosie says:

        Although I did see that there is now a glock that looks like a nintendo gun.

        • Anonymous says:

          I can’t believe this is legal. No Kinder eggs because they are choking hazards but guns can look like toys? It’s like backwards world.

  11. This is on my mind quite a bit as my dad hunts and also has a terrible memory. I ask every time I go to my parents’ cabin, before we arrive, if the guns have been locked in the garage (a separate structure from the house). Even though I grew up in a house with (hunting) guns, and literally never even considered playing with them, it really scares me since my son is so little. I was taught to shoot a rifle safely as a kid but I really had/have zero interest in shooting things and I don’t even remember if my dad’s guns were at our house growing up in a safe or maybe stored at the cabin. But as my dad gets older he’s more absentminded and also, my son gets into everything. I know there is nothing more to do than what we are doing but I still get nervous about it.

  12. And on the subject of toy guns, I really appreciate that Slate article posted above. My husband and I haven’t talked about this, but I’m leaning towards play guns like nerf and water OK, guns that look real, not okay.

  13. Tfor22 says:

    I was not crazy about the idea of Nerf guns but let the lad get some for his 12th birthday. I find I am more flexible on this than I expected but not as much as the lad would like. For example I would not let him get “Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare” a few years ago because it is a first-person shooter. I also would not let him get “Overwatch” but realized he might play it at his friends’ houses. I did let him get “Fortnite” recently after reading a bunch of articles about how strategic the gameplay is and how you can emphasize teamwork. I still don’t like the first person shooter aspect.

  14. In House Lobbyist says:

    So we had a Nerf wars party last year for my son’s birthday. This year is a Water Wars party with water guns and water balloons. We also go to Nerf wars at a local gym quite often. We have a no shoot a person in the head rule for both. But I live in a deep red state, have a Marine husband, and hunting was a way of life when I grew up. My kids each got their lifetime hunting and fishing license before they turned 2 and the price went up. Boy Scouts do archery and BB gun shooting. We practice gun safety instead of gun avoidance. So maybe I am totally wrong but Nerf guns and water guns are fun and I fully expect adults will participate in our Water Wars Party on a hot day.

  15. Fortnight is a 3rd person co-op game that does include shooting (in addition to other tasks)

  16. Anonymous says:

    3rd person

  17. saysfaa says:

    I have four sons and a daughter. My husband and I support responsibility in all areas – and part of being responsible is being kind. Teaching them how to handle things that need to be handled responsibly is much more effective when they have access to such things than just telling them facts about things irrelevant to their daily lives. This is true whether it is supersoaker, compound bow, gun – or baseball bat or rock. They could shoot, swing, or throw as the case may be – if/when they had shown themselves responsible enough to be trusted with such a things. All five are now responsible, kind, nonviolent, nonthreatening adults now.

    Being responsible is more than just not hurting anyone – it is choosing where and how you shoot (swing, throw, etc)… because the risk of an accident and even just perception matter too.
    Being kind is more than just not hurting other people; you also respect other people’s choices. Don’t squirt anyone who doesn’t want to be squirted – but if you don’t want to be squirted then you also don’t get to squirt other people. And much more, of course.

    There are downsides to trying too hard to eliminate risks. I think it is better to teach kids how to handle the risks.

    • saysfaa says:

      And for what it is worth – what the thing looks like is far less important to us than what it can do… except for the perception thing (do not use something where/how someone else might mistake for a real gun).

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