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Bite this bullet

What should you do about children's fascination with guns? Reva Klein ponders the options. Probably since the advent of gunpowder, children have been playing with toy guns. When they aren't available, tenacious tykes the world over - usually boys - will improvise with sticks, lego, playdough, anything that can be reasonably held and aimed - even a carrot. Cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers - any fantasy stand-off between goodies and baddies invariably involves lethal weapons as the focal point. And why not? Popular culture has long focussed on guns as the ultimate symbol of masculinity and power.

The government can ban handguns all it wants. It won't stop Hamleys, Toys R Us and even the John Lewis Partnership from selling toy guns, on the justification that that they are not "look-alikes." Given the Pounds 8m or so spent on toy weapons each year in Britain alone, even if all toy guns were banned tomorrow, there would still be thousands and thousands of well-stocked arsenals in the toy cupboards of our country.

There is no doubt that adult tolerance levels of toy guns, real or imaginary, is being put to the test as never before in the wake of the Dunblane massacre. With sensitivities running high, "bang bang, you're dead" games in the playground that were once ignored may now not be. Until now there have broadly been three schools of thought on the subject of violent toys. One is the pacifist view that all toy weapons should be banned, in the belief that violent toys beget violent behaviour. Another is that banning pushes the issue underground; children crave the forbidden fruit and will improvise or acquire them by other means, so let them play out their aggression while they are young and get it out of their system. The third position is that there is nothing wrong with toy guns in the first place. But in our post-Dunblane world, many people have changed their minds. Teachers may feel action should be taken but don't want to overdo it. Is it right for schools to intervene in violent games that involve pretend shooting? And what is the best way of going about it?

Jennie Lindon, child psychologist and author, believes that if a school considers it appropriate to intervene they should do so, but it must be handled with care and circumspection. "It's an unsettling aspect of the human condition that human beings often find war and conflict more exciting than peace, " she says. "So it's probably realistic to acknowledge that we won't stop children playing violent games altogether." She advises that schools who wish to tackle the issue need to approach it as a whole school. Given that it is the support staff who are are usually the ones on playground supervision, they must be an essential part of the team. "There is sometimes a confrontational view of playground supervision that needs to be addressed," says Jennie Lindon. "Staff discussions should be looking at what attitudes children bring into schools, what they're thinking. If the consensus is that the school doesn't want weapon-based games, there have to be ground rules formulated and discussed with the children. It needs to be understood by everybody that you can have sensible discussions with children at the age of eight and nine."

Going in and breaking up games can certainly drive things underground, possibly resulting in formidable resistance to playground supervisors. "You can't just say don't do this or that," says Ms Lindon. "You have to offer alternatives. For instance, you can offer them a particular area in which to play football. If you're taking away aggressive games, you have to work out what you can offer in their place by thinking positively about boys' development and needs".

In the end, they are children, these boys who are searching for their identities as well as mimicking last night's telly as they aim their lego guns at each others' heads. Talking to them calmly about what they're doing, discussing the difference between a telly series and what happens in real life, will, in Jennie Lindon's words, "extend their understanding of what happens in the real world. What we should be trying to do is to counteract the desensitisation that has led them to believe that violence is funny. It's a difficult thing to achieve".

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