Q: My 4-year-old son is extremely intrigued with guns. We do not allow guns in our family, but anything he picks up in the house, he turns it into a gun. Do you know of anything that will help?
Gigi Friedman, Cockeysville
A: Talk about an issue that really pulls a parent's trigger: While studies show that it's normal for small boys to be fascinated with guns, researchers also warn that violence in today's society is escalating to dangerous levels.
"It's a different ball game than when we were kids," says Dr. Malcolm Watson, a professor of psychology at Brandeis University, who studies children's aggression and toy-gun play.
"Society has changed. What we don't want to do is desensitize our children to violence so that they become even more aggressive. We do want to share with them our own values about violence."
About 70 percent of all boys are fascinated by guns, researchers say, and the fixation typically peaks between ages 4 and 5.
As many parents have observed, boys at this age seem to be figuring out how to be powerful and have control. Pretending with weapons and superheroes are ways to do that.
While the majority of boys who play with guns grow up unharmed by these childhood games, Dr. Watson says more long-term studies are needed. His own study in a day-care center, however, did reveal a positive correlation between gun play and immediate aggression.
"We found that the more boys played with toy guns, the more they tended to hit, kick and throw toys," Dr. Watson says. "Also, the more they played with guns, the less they engaged in nonaggressive fantasy, such as playing house."
The correlation was not present in girls.
Also, some boys are at higher risk than others for violent behavior, says Myriam Miedzian of New York, author of "Boys Will Be Boys" (Anchor, $10).
"Boys who are growing up in dysfunctional families with a lot of anger are at higher risk," Ms. Miedzian says.
"Boys with certain learning disabilities and attention disorders are at higher risk because of poor impulse control and higher frustration."
Parents who want to temper their children's interest in guns are up against a tough foe.
One thing you can do, parents say, is give a concrete sense of the consequences of violence.
"With my son, we talk about what guns do, that they hurt people," says Debbie Bunn of Kent, Ohio. "We ask him why he'd want to play with something that can hurt people."
Other parents have lessened the fascination by making rules to limit how and where toy guns can be used.
"As a kindergarten teacher, I wouldn't let them turn Legos into guns, so they turned their Legos into spaceships that had guns," says Paula Helberg of Naperville, Ill. "I realized I wasn't going to be able to stop this, so I instituted a rule that they could not play around an unarmed person and they could not pretend to shoot anyone. The novelty wore off quickly."
While a reporter at the Miami Herald, Beverly Mills developed this column after the birth of her son, now 6. Ms. Mills and her husband currently live in Raleigh, N.C., and also have a 4-year-old daughter.
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