The problem with Prince George and his toy gun

Prince George at the polo with his family on the weekend.
Prince George at the polo with his family on the weekend. Photo: AP

When my son was little, I decided we would be a gun-free household. Toy guns included.

I didn't go so far as to frisk tiny visitors at the door to ensure they weren't armed before they set foot inside. But I certainly never bought him a gun in his first few years and if someone did, I quietly chucked it in the bin when he wasn't looking.

I copped a little bit of ridicule from some friends and family members who thought I was being ridiculous. But I stuck to my guns, so to speak.

And then something strange started happening. If we were at a play date at someone's house he would go straight for the toy gun. In a park or the backyard, he would pick up a stick and point it at us.

At home, once his dexterity allowed, he would fashion his Mega blocks into the shape of a gun and run around shooting me.

The first time he did it I recall asking what he had made. "A gun," he said proudly. "I shoot you. Pow pow." He was all but two or three at the time and I was shocked.

I scanned everything he watched on TV, which was not much. No guns. His DVDs consisted mainly of The Wiggles and Fireman Sam. No guns there either.

I brought it up at his childcare centre. "It's a boy thing," they said. "They are all obsessed with guns. They do it here all the time."

So, my carefully laid plan not to expose my son to a killing machine had come undone because he attended childcare. Or maybe it was playgroup, the park, or mother's group, or any of the other places he interacted with children who either had access to a toy gun or had seen one on TV.

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A toy gun, or in my son's case, Buzz Lightyear Blaster, eventually made it into my home. Years later, the Nerf craze started and he got one of those too.

Maybe I had given up, or maybe I had bigger things to worry about, like if he was eating enough veggies and if he would ever learn to read. Which is why I looked at this week's photos of Prince George brandishing a toy gun through slightly less rose-coloured glasses.

Yes, this was a four-year-old boy holding a rather realistic looking toy gun. Pretending to shoot his mum, his sister and a small baby in the head. It should also be noted another boy who appeared the same age was also holding a toy gun. It was possible they both belonged to him and he was sharing his toys. But still, the press went to town.

There are a few things to bear in mind here. The British royal family love to shoot guns. Usually at ducks and other wildlife, out of the public eye on private estates. The Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen's husband, famously took George's father William, and his uncle, Harry, hunting in the days after their mother's tragic death.arr

They come from military backgrounds. George's father, uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather all served in the military. Prince Harry even saw active service. All, presumably, have fired military-grade guns.

Prince George would be surrounded every day by armed police and bodyguards. Sure, they wouldn't be brandishing firearms in his face, but they would have them in the event they needed to protect the third in line to the throne.

Yet here was the world's press and social media commentators collectively heaping shame on a four-year-old playing with a toy gun.

Yesterday, when I typed "Prince George" into Google the top two search results were "Prince George gun" and "Prince George toy gun". The word's "outrage", "controversy", "tone deaf" and "bad parenting" danced across the screen.

But have we made a mountain out of a molehill, or should we be horrified of images of a child holding a toy gun?

Dr Kimberely O'Brien, principal psychologist and co-founder of Quirky Kid Clinic, says she finds images of Prince George holding a toy gun concerning, not least because there are much better options.

"I just think there are so many other things that children could play with. Imaginary play, running, jumping, climbing. Things that develop their motor skills," she says.

Dr O'Brien says children who use toy or imaginary guns will often act out scenes from something they have seen on TV or from other children, and this can lead to increased aggression.

"They end up with lots of adrenaline and it often does lead to aggressive play and violence," she says.

Dr O'Brien says numerous studies have shown a link between children seeing violent images and acting violently. She says if a parent learns a child is playing "guns" at childcare or preschool, they should talk to staff about their concerns. 

If you are a no-gun household and you pick up your child from a playdate where a Nerf gunfight has broken out, she suggests using it as a learning experience with your child to explain that playing guns is not part of your family values.

As for Prince George and flak the royal family has copped in recent days, she says it shows no one is immune to tricky parenting experiences.

"On a positive note, it does normalise the royal family and shows these issues come up with everybody," she says.

"It happens to everyone and I think it is a lesson to everyone."