Three years ago, on Susan Road in Faisalabad, two teenage boys were taking pictures with a toy pistol to post them on Facebook when Faryad Husain, the station house officer of Peoples Colony, opened fire on them without any warning.
Both the boys were injured (one critically who died later) and they were taken to the district headquarters (DHQ) hospital by police who reportedly escaped after realising that they had made a mistake and that the boys were not armed robbers. (As reported in Dawn, June 23, 2015)
In February this year, Sindh banned the manufacture, sale, purchase, use and display of toy guns to protect children from becoming familiar with weapons that often leads to irresponsible behaviour with weapons and guns. (Express Tribune, February, 24, 2018)
The initiative by the Sindh government led to a series of debates and discussions on banning toy guns — whether it would be beneficial for children or would it hamper their learning? Studies conducted in the West, however, showed no link between playing with toy weapons in childhood and aggression in adulthood. Child psychologist Michael Thompson, author of It’s a Boy! Your Son’s Development From Birth To Age 18, says, “Everyone has an informal causation theory that playing with guns leads to the use of guns in adulthood. There’s no scientific evidence suggesting that playing war games in childhood leads to real-life aggression.”
It’s usually seen that by the age of two or three, clear gender preferences emerge when it comes to playtime — boys usually lean toward aggressive play, such as fighting monsters, while girls are more inclined to engage with dolls or games that involve family. Michael Thompson says, “We can’t tell if it’s wired in or social learning. As a little boy, you’re not very powerful; however, with a gun you feel powerful and heroic.”
Another study carried out by the London Metropolitan University in 2003, found that children who were reprimanded for playing with guns started believing they were doing something wrong. “They’ll still play, but this time secretly.” Researcher Penny Holland, author of We Don’t Play With Guns Here, found “the more children are allowed to play freely the more engaged they become and imagination thrives.”
To analyse the usefulness of the ban in keeping the children least affected in the local settings, where private security guards are hired to protect streets, intersections are decorated with fighter-jet and cannon models, and traffic constables wear bullet-proof vests, Eos spoke with people from different walks of life to gather their opinion on the issue.
Toy guns may not be physically harmful but they may cause immense psychological damage to children
“A little boy does not know what is negative or positive. For him, use of a gun is heroic,” says Shamim Mumtaz, Adviser to Sindh Chief Minister for Social Welfare. “It is necessary to stop him from playing with toy guns. Parents and teachers can play a more important role than the government. The media should also play its part in educating the masses.”
Prof Dr Anila Amber Malik, former chairperson, Department of Psychology, University of Karachi, disagrees with the blanket ban. “The more you suppress something, the more it will flourish,” she says. “The best solution is to give them guns that do not resemble real ones. A toy gun should look like a toy. Playing with toy guns as a child may not be harmful. It is actually teenage violence that is dangerous.”
Balancing the effects
“Water gun is the best solution,” says Prof Malik. “It not only suppresses the desire for a real gun in the child but also provides him with a toy which neither alters his psyche nor harms anybody.
“Parents should also give other toys to the child along with a toy gun to neutralise the influence of the latter,” she adds. “For instance, a football or a building toy would involve physical activity, express the child’s creativity and release energy and aggression. We call it sublimation in psychology. Parents have no control over what is happening outside their homes, but they can improve the inside environment that shapes the child’s personality. It is always sensible that parents give their children toys that help in their physical and mental growth.”
Little boys look up to fathers and subconsciously imitate them. “Fathers help children socialise, take them out and play with them. Similarly, girls follow their mothers,” Dr Malik says.
“Boys like toy guns from the age of two to three years. At this stage, girls prefer dolls. Around this age, a child needs superheroes who are powerful. In most TV shows and video games, power is associated with a gun with the exception of Popeye the sailor who gets his power dose from spinach,” she adds with a smile.
Superman, Batman and Spiderman are superheroes without guns. “Children love cartoons like Tom and Jerry and Dexter’s Laboratory. Unfortunately, locally much work has not been done other than Burqa Avenger and Commander Safeguard,” Dr Malik points out.
Discussing the changing trends of society, Prof Malik explains, “Before the rise of terrorism, children used to play Chor sipahi (robber and cops) where the policeman had a gun and he had to nab the robber. Now children assume the role of terrorists.”
Run awareness campaigns
Renowned psychiatrist Prof Dr Syed Haroon Ahmed who is also a member of the Gun-free Pakistan movement, believes that the gun culture started during the Cold War. “Television brought real pictures of violence, conflicts and wars inside our homes,” he says. “Assuming that weapons are a symbol of power, kids wanted toy guns and we provided them with replicas of the real stuff. These days, school and college students are taught to use rifles. After the Army Public School attack, a number of schools conducted drills inside their premises and taught children how to save themselves in case of a terrorist attack. Children are taken to training centres and introduced to tanks, guns and various other forms of artillery. We should run public awareness campaigns about the harmful psychological impact of the gun exposure on young minds.”
Competitive games and sports
Dr Uzma Ambreen, a psychiatrist at the Psychosocial Centre Karachi, feels that educational toys help children learn. “Toy gun is an aggressive toy because children become familiar with killing people when they are not even aware of the concept of death,” she says. “Toys should not be harmful mentally or physically. Children should play games that are not aggressive but competitive. Playing dolls helps girls understand relationships and interaction as do pets.”
Real-looking guns assist in crime
“Some toy guns resemble real guns in shape, size, colour, weight and texture and these can frighten anyone,” points out Shahla Qureshi, Senior Superintendent of Police. “Street criminals often use these to carry out crime. Parents are usually the first ones to bring a gun home for their sons. Why do parents discriminate by giving dolls to girls and guns to boys?
“Guns carrying plastic or metal pellets may cause eye injuries,” she continues. “Afghanistan banned the sale of all toy guns in 2015, though gun is considered part of their culture. This was done following injuries to more than 100 people on Eid. Ulumi Noor ul Haq, Afghanistan’s interior minister at the time ordered police to confiscate all toy guns from toy stores.”
The initiative by the Sindh government led to a series of debates and discussions on banning toy guns — whether it would be beneficial for children or would it hamper their learning? Studies conducted in the West, however, showed no link between playing with toy weapons in childhood and aggression in adulthood.
Rana Asif Habib, the President of the Initiator Human Development Foundation (IHDF) working specifically for the rehabilitation of homeless children, makes a valid point. “Children witness aggression and notice security officials protecting major buildings of the city and government vehicles, wailing sirens, overpowering all other motorists on roads,” he says. “Guns have become a symbol of prestige and status. Children now think that weapons are the solution to all of their problems. They watch movies and play video games based on violence and recreate scenes while playing with toy guns.”
Habib emphasises the need to change our surroundings. “Our NGO gives away toys to needy children in shanty towns and huts but we never distribute the toy guns. We have also planned to run awareness programmes in schools. Living alongside weapons could affect children’s psychology and attract them to guns which often breeds violent tendencies in them. A huge responsibility lies on all of us to play our parts actively and ensure that our children grow in a healthy environment.”
The writer is a member of staff and can be reached at email@example.com
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 27th, 2018