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Boys and guns

By Peter West - posted Friday, 11 January 2008


Should boys play with guns? The question is raised in a new report from the United Kingdom.

Most parents’ reaction is to stop gun play at once. Parents’ websites contain much anxious discussion, especially from mothers, who worry seeing their child playing with a gun. Not having a toy gun provides the opportunity for many boys to invent one. Parents say their sons bite into a sandwich, which becomes an imaginary gun: “Bang, bang, you’re dead”.

No mother, or father, wants their son to become a gun-wielding monster who destroys other people’s lives.

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There is a huge range of difference among boys across socio-economic status, race, and language. Yet it appears that boys all over the world often play with guns, and - later in their lives - with computer games in which they aim at being the best and eliminating the rest.

But these games may be useful to get boys learning, a new UK report on the early years of learning suggests. It says that boys often watch TV and games and act out what they see the males doing. We don’t have to look hard to find examples of men on TV or in movies with a weapon in their hands: from John Wayne to the stream of movies with Schwarzenegger, van Damme and others.

The report says “Adults can find this type of play particularly challenging and have a natural instinct to stop it”. The report is called Confident, Capable and Creative: Supporting Boys’ Achievements, and comes from the UK Department for Children, Schools and Families.

The UK Children’s Minister, Beverley Hughes, called it “a commonsense approach to the fact that many children, and perhaps particularly many boys, like boisterous, physical activity”. Her masterful wording encompasses many debates and will create many more.

The report says every child is entitled to challenging and enjoyable learning: this must include boys. It says many children do chose gender-specific activities, and each has a personal learning journey. We must trust the richness of children’s ideas, the report says; not impose our own.

Case studies in the report emphasise exploration, experimentation and “mucking about with things”. Some might see this as the kind of play that males typically do- “messing about in boats” as described by Kenneth Grahame in Wind in the Willows.

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There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that's the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don't; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you're always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you've done it there's always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you'd much better not. Spoken by Ratty to Mole.

Many men do enjoy mucking about with cars, computers and boats. Fathers play with kids (especially sons) and it’s typically in a more challenging and competitive way. They nurture (as mothers do) but in characteristically different styles.

Efforts to improve boys’ achievement in the UK and Australia have looked principally at behaviour and learning. Without wishing to make gross comparisons between boys and girls, there are worrying trends in behaviour among boys. Oppositional and conduct disorders are twice as common among boys, according to Sebastian Kraemer’s report in the British Medical Journal.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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