Should You Set Limits for Pretend Play?

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"Bang, bang! You're dead!" Whether it's fake sword fighting, pretend gunplay, or a superhero scene recreated, parents may cringe at the idea of make-believe violence where kids pretend to kill each other. But there's more to pretend play than meets the eye, which is part of the reason you can't stop kids from doing it. Learn what pretend play means to children, and find out when you should step in.

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By Lucy Rector Filppu and Keren Perles

“Bang, bang! You’re dead!” In a culture filled with violent video games, TV shows and images of war, it’s unnerving to see children pretending to kill each other. But whether it’s pretend gunplay, fake sword fighting or a superhero scene recreated, there’s more to it than just violence. How can kids safely use their imagination, and when should you step in?

Clarify Your Values

Kids want to understand power in relationships. By killing the “bad guys,” they can, in their minds, exert some control over their world. “Model ways of problem solving that are respectful of all the parties concerned and that are not hurtful physically or emotionally,” says Marjan Wilkes, a longtime preschool teacher. “Talk about what you can do to promote a more peaceful culture.”

Use Props That Have Multiple Uses

Don’t buy your kid realistic-looking toy weapons. If your child wants to shoot pretend guns, try using popsicle sticks or rolled-up newspaper—something that can easily transform into a thermometer, microphone or baton. Weapons should be just one part of a broad repertoire of playing possibilities.

Know When to Step In

“If two kids are wrestling, and one kid is being pinned, and they’re smiling at each other while it happens, that’s fine,” says Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play and author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. But if one child is definitely not enjoying it, you should intervene and help them understand where they stepped over the line.

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Allow Kids Some Leeway

No study has linked pretend gunplay to future violent behavior, and Dr. Brown says studies linking superhero play to violence can be misleading. Furthermore, many child experts agree that forbidding play fighting entirely makes it more appealing—by pushing it underground, you give it more intrigue and power. Instead, allow your child to play and keep the issue open for discussion.

Don't Shame Kids

Despite your discomfort, be careful in disciplining kids for play you find inappropriate. “The last thing you want to do is shame your child, because that leads boys to mask their feelings and act with false bravado,” warns William Pollack, Ph.D., author of Real Boys. Instead, ask open-ended questions and even play along to better understand your child’s perspective.

Make Decisions Together

If your child’s gunplay is too gritty or his fighting is too fierce, calmly tell him you’d like him to cool it down, and work together to find a compromise. Say, “I know you’re having fun with your pretend play, but I feel a little scared by guns. Real guns can kill and I feel afraid when you point your finger at me like that.”

Watch Out for Mismatches

Pretend violence or rough-and-tumble can go over the line depending on the players involved. For example, an introverted, shy child may not feel comfortable playing with an older, extroverted, fearless kid. In this case, protect the younger child and help the older child gain the necessary social skills to make playing safe and appropriate.

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Put a Positive Spin on Play

Kids want to challenge the world and change it for the better. Tap into that drive by making pretend play an exercise in doing the right thing. Superheroes and police put their lives on the line to help people in need and society as a whole. Point out these qualities of character to your child. Think play fighting is devoid of moral value? Think again.

Take a deep breath and realize pretend fighting is a stage like any other. It doesn’t mean your child is destined for a life of crime. Curiosity and vulnerability often lie beneath the “Bang, Bang” bravado. Use the opportunity to teach your kid about the world and about his own ability to reach great heights.

Looking for activities that inspire peaceful forms of play? Try these 9 outdoor games for outdoor kids, or for the little princess in your home, do our fairy tale crafts to add cool props to pretend play.

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