Should we allow children to play with guns?


Kid with gun

Kid with gun (Photo credit: World of Oddy)

Whether it is okay for boys to play with toy guns is a controversial topic. Many parents may feel uncomfortable about their young child wielding a gun and going around shooting people even if it is a toy. Other parents may think that it is all part of being a boy and that a boy’s natural aggressive tendencies should not be suppressed. So who is right? The research on whether toy guns make children more aggressive is contradictory. What is interesting is that play therapists, who use play to help children work through anxieties and issues, include toy guns for the children to play with.

After some initial reservations, I have decided to be reasonably relaxed about letting my son play with toy guns as he was making guns out of Lego and cardboard anyway. One of his best friends has a nerf gun and they seemed to have so much fun playing with them at his friend’s house, I decided to buy one too. I also want my son to feel that he can play whatever games he likes within reason.

One problem I have encountered so far is the consternation of some of my friends for having toy guns in the house. Some of them have said that they would never have a toy gun in their house and they try to stop their son’s playing shooting games. This has allowed me to discuss and debate the research regarding aggression and toy guns with them.

Although it is unclear whether children should be allowed to play with toy guns, what is clear from the research is that aggressive play should not be stopped. Landy and Menna found that mothers of aggressive children were more likely to stop aggressive make-believe play. They were also more likely to say things like ‘That’s not nice’ or ‘That’s unkind’. In contrast, mothers of non-aggressive children would play along with the
aggressive play, taking on the voice of certain characters and pretending to be scared, killed or eaten by crocodiles and dinosaurs. Landy and Menna found that mothers of aggressive children were more likely to stop aggressive make-believe play. They were also more likely to say things like ‘That’s not nice’ or ‘That’s unkind’. In contrast, mothers of non-aggressive children would play along with the aggressive play, taking on the voice of certain characters and pretending to be scared, killed or eaten by crocodiles and dinosaurs. Landy and Menna suggest that children become more aggressive if they cannot act out their aggression during play. If aggression is not released during play, then it ends up being acted out physically through hitting, biting and pushing.

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‘Should aggressive make-believe play be discouraged?’

“Playing with Toy Guns Desensitizes Children to Using Real Guns…” Uh, Sez Who? (


Why fathers are important role models for boys


Father/Son A and B

A recent Newsnight programme, highlighted that in some areas of the country some boys are growing up without a father around or a male teacher to act as a role model. The question discussed in the programme, was whether boys need more male role models.

Psychological research shows that same-sex role models are important.  Bandura, Ross and Ross (1961), found that when children observed an adult be physically and verbally aggressive to a plastic bobo doll, they were very likely to copy the behaviour. Boys were more physically aggressive than girls but there was little difference for verbal aggression. The children were also more likely to imitate same-sex models. This study showed the impact that same-sex role models can have on children and the importance of exposing boys to good male role models.

We cannot pretend that all fathers are good role models but many are. Fathers have different skills to mothers and it is important to value these differences. They are better able to engage in rough-and-tumble play and to show their sons how to manage aggression. Fathers are more likely than mothers to play football with their sons and during such play they show their sons how to be good sportsmen. Another difference is that fathers tend to expect their sons to become independent quicker than mothers and having this balance between a father and mother’s expectations helps boys to manage the transition from dependence to independence.

Without a father or a father figure, in form of a male teacher or uncle, young boys may turn to older boys for guidance. Older boys who are not men yet may not be quite ready for the responsibility of guiding a younger boy. After all, older boys may still be forming their own identity. Without fathers or father figures boys may be more likely to be led astray. For example, if a young boy sees an older boy rewarded with respect and status for being involved in a gang, he may be motivated to copy this undesirable behaviour.

Not every child has a father around so I believe the solution is to make sure we have enough male role models in our schools, youth centres and sport centres. If we can’t recruit male teachers in our primary schools, then we should make up for this by have male sports coaches or male activity leaders come into school.

The good news is that the government is not oblivious to the issue of male role models. A playbus comes regularly to my local park and I’ve noticed that the activity leaders are all male. They bring a different activity every week, which is great. Some weeks they make dens with the children, other weeks one does craft activities while the other one plays football and they have even set up science experiments. We just need to make sure that activities like these are offered everywhere.


Teaching self-control to children

The importance of family meals


How can parents help their fussy eater?


Eating Shiva

Eating Shiva (Photo credit: Mirror | imaging reality)

A few of my fellow mothers have talked to me about their children’s fussy eating habits. They have discussed their worries over their child’s weight gain and have told me that they can get quite stressed at meal times. All children have their good points and bad points but I have always felt lucky that my 3-year old son eats well. My mother-in-law can’t believe that one of his favourite foods is broccoli! So should I take the credit that he eats well? Is his lack of fussiness anything to do with my parenting style? I know that my friends who have fussy eaters and have older children who are not, say that they haven’t done anything different with their fussy eater. So what does the research say?

Research suggests that some children are naturally more picky eaters and can take longer to accept new foods than others. Sanders and colleagues (1993) compared fussy eaters with non-problem eaters by observing them at home during mealtimes. They found that the fussy eaters could be very difficult at mealtimes, for example, they would play with their food, complain about their food, refuse to eat their food, throw tantrums or regurgitate their food. However, they also found that parent of fussy eaters were more coercive in getting their children to eat food than parents of non-problem eaters.  It could be argued that parents of fussy eaters are inevitably going to pressurise their children to eat more in an effort to keep their children at a healthy weight. However, research suggests that pressurising children to eat more is counter-productive. It can lead to mealtimes becoming a battleground between children and parents. Sanders and colleagues (1993) found that the parents of the fussy eaters made significantly more negative comments at mealtimes.

Birch and colleagues (1984) found that pressurising a child to eat food by offering a reward can decrease liking for the food. Furthermore, if mealtimes are a negative experience, dislike for food increases. These findings are important because it is easy as a parent to use tactics to get your child to eat more. However, it appears feeding tactics can backfire and that it is better for parents to allow their child to completely self-regulate their food intake. Perhaps the only way parents can influence their children’s food consumption is by making mealtimes a positive experience and by enjoying healthy food in front of their children.  Galloway and colleagues (2005) found that parents who ate more fruit and vegetables themselves, had children who ate more fruit and vegetables. However, Fisher and colleagues (2002) found that parents who pressured their children to eat more fruit and vegetables, had children who actually consumed fewer fruit and vegetables. Galloway and Colleagues (2005) suggest that parents and children can influence each other in a cyclical way so that children’s initial eating style can lead to parent’s use of pressure to eat, which then leads the child to be less able to self-regulate their  food intake and so the parents add more pressure exacerbating the existing problems.

Picky eating can start early so what can parents do to stop it becoming a problem at an early stage? The research suggests that parents should take a relaxed approach. Toddlers are learning to regulate their food intake so although they may not eat much three days in a row, they will naturally make up these calories over the week. They can also find it difficult to eat at specific meal times so they should be allowed to snack on healthy food between meals. Toddlers should be encouraged to feed themselves and allowed to eat the amounts that they want so that they can learn to self-regulate their food intake. The advice is that if children do not want to eat a food, then they should be allowed not to. New food can take toddlers at least ten presentations before it is accepted. The fact that toddlers do not like to try new foods is natural and is an evolutionary mechanism designed to protect them from poisoning themselves or gastrointestinal problems (Birch, 1998). Parents just need to be patient about introducing new foods. Children will learn to eat different types of food as they observe their parents eating different types of food at mealtimes. This is why shared mealtimes is important.

My own question from looking at the research is how do you manage not restricting a child’s diet with concerns about obesity? Allen and Myers (2006) suggest that parents provide their children with an appropriate diet without being over controlling on what food their children eat. Children need to learn to self-regulate their energy intake and they actually do this better without parental intervention. However, they do recommend that parents of overweight toddlers be given weight management counselling to study the child’s food intake and activity level. They point out that children should not be encouraged to have a strict, low-calore, low-fat diet as this would not give children sufficient nutrients for growth. Fisher and Birch (1998) found that parents who restrict access to treats such as sweets, biscuits and chocolate actually have children who select and eat them more when given free access to them.

Having thought about this research, I have wondered whether I should be less controlling about my son’s food consumption. I do try to restrict my son’s chocolate intake although I have to admit without much success as he is always being given treats by grandparents and at people’s houses. I have also offered chocolate or sweets as a reward before, which I have realised I definitely shouldn’t be doing. I think the way forward is to allow him to eat as many treats as he wants when he is offered them, but to not have them at home too often. One thing that I think I have got right so far is that I have always been cautious about offering food when my son is upset as I do not want my son to associate food with comfort.

My book  ‘Psychology for Parents: Birth to teens’ is on sale as an e-book on Amazon and

Does it really matter how much television you let your kids watch?


A child watching TV.

A child watching TV. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to psychological research it does matter how much TV your children watch. One study found that the number of hours of TV watched between 1 and 3 years old was linked with attentional problems at aged 7. Psychologists suggest that this is because real life does not move as quickly as the animated cartoons on television and that if young children are allowed to watch these animations, they find real life slower and more boring. TV watching is not only linked with attentional problems but also increased aggression. This is not surprising when so many cartoons contain violence, just think of all those superheroes using violence to get rid of the bad guys. Children are very impressionable and are easily influenced by the characters they see on TV. However, this is the kind of research that I wish I could ignore as it makes life much more difficult for me. I would much rather put on the TV than spend time pushing trains round a train track with my 3-year-old. Unfortunately, this is where knowing too much psychology is a bad thing as I can’t help but feel guilty about allowing my son to watch too much TV. I promised myself I wouldn’t buy a DVD player for the car before my son was born but it was the only way to get me through long journeys with him and still have my sanity. I bought the DVD player when he was 9 months old after two journeys with him screaming on the motorway to get out of his car seat. However, I have tried to reduce TV watching time a home. This is not easy especially when I am trying to get dressed in the morning or cook dinner at night. With no TV to babysit my son, I have had to get quite inventive when cooking. I have ended up getting my son to measure out the spices or herbs into a bowl, which takes twice as long and makes a huge mess. I have also given my son play dough so that he can pretend he is cutting vegetables when I am doing it. I accept I might be slightly overdoing it and making life hard for myself but that is the cost of being a mum who knows too much psychology.

‘Psychology for parents: Birth to teens’ is for sale as an e-book on Amazon,, Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks and Apple ibookstore.

How do you deal with a child who is upset?


Managing emotions - Identifying feelings

Managing emotions – Identifying feelings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My son fell down in the park the other day and started crying and I went straight to him, picked him up and cuddled him until he stopped crying. But am I mollycoddling my son too much and turning him into a wimp? I know that other mothers might see it this way and want their children to ‘toughen’ up.

As usual, when I have questions about my parenting style, I turn to psychological research for the answers. ‘Tuning into kids’ is a new parenting programme being run in Australia and it suggests that we should not dismiss or play down our children’s feelings. Parents are taught to accept and explore their children’s emotions rather than dismiss them. For example, when parents dismiss their children’s emotions they say to themselves that they want to change their child’s worried moods into cheerful ones. However, according to research, it is better for parents to try to understand why their children are worried and to find out what their children are thinking. According to Gottman and colleagues (1997), parents should be aware of their children’s emotions and help their children to understand and label their emotions. It may be hard for parents to accept their children’s strong emotions such as anger and jealousy but it is important to try to empathise with them. If parents can learn to deal with their children’s strong emotions, children feel validated. Parents can also use it as a time for getting closer to their children and to teach their children how to solve problems. Gottman and colleagues found that when parents coach their children in emotions, the children have fewer behaviour problems and better social skills.

Havighurst et al. (2010) compared 4 and 5-year-old children, whose parents had been taught emotion coaching (the ‘Tuning into kids’ parenting programme) with children whose parents had not been taught how to tune into their children’s emotions. The children whose parents had been taught emotions coaching had a much better understanding of different types of emotions and they also had fewer parent- and teacher-reported behaviour problems six months later.

This research suggests that I should continue to comfort my son when he is upset and not worry about making him independent. I do find it hard sometimes to deal with my son when he is angry but I have to remind myself to accept his strong feelings. Having read this research, when my son said he didn’t want to go to his new preschool a couple of weeks ago, I said to him that I understood that he was worried. I also resisted the temptation to say that he would be fine and instead told him that I had felt worried on my first day at school too. Acknowledging his worries seemed to make him much more willing to go into the new preschool and as I said in a previous post, he told me afterwards that he had enjoyed himself.

‘Psychology for parents: Birth to teens’ is for sale as an e-book on Amazon,, Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks and Apple ibookstore.

What about a mother’s needs?


Mother and Child watching each other

What about a mother’s needs?

Knowing so much child psychology, makes me aware of how important the early years of my son’s life are. Even the way a baby’s brain develops is affected by the emotional bond between a parent and their child. Chugani et al. (2001) used brain scans to study Romanian adoptees who had been left in their cots without love or stimulation for an average of 38 months before being adopted. He found that the adoptees showed significantly reduced brain activation compared to controls in the parts of the brain associated with emotion. This type of research makes me aware of how the interactions I have with my son, will affect him long-term. Studies suggest that the more responsive a parent is to their child, the more likely a secure emotional attachment will be formed and the more easily a child will learn to understand and regulate their own emotions. Fortunately, I have found it easy to bond with my son and to put his needs first. However, my mum said to me the other day that I need to remember my own needs and that I should try and find a balance. I know that she is right for a number of reasons. Sometimes, I will completely forget to make myself a cup of coffee until two hours later because my son is demanding my attention. I will often not be able to get dressed until half-way through the morning because my son wants my attention. I sometimes put off seeing my own friends because I know it will be difficult with my son. So how do you strike a balance? How do you meet your needs? Perhaps I need to remember what Winnicott (1953) said “The good-enough mother…starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure”. My son is now 3 years old, so perhaps he is more able to tolerate being frustrated.

But how can a mother of a newborn baby meet her needs? It is hard for some new mothers to make the adjustment to looking after a baby. They may miss the social interaction of the workplace and the stimulation. At the same time, they may feel that their career has been stalled and that motherhood is undervalued. I think that avoiding isolation and building a network of friends is crucial to enjoying motherhood. Fortunately, throughout my experience of being a mother, I have had a strong network of other mothers to share my experiences with. In fact, I am the person who organises this group. It is relatively easy, I email a rota around and people only get back to me if they can’t host. As there are twelve mothers in my group, there are always a few people at every meeting. Now the children are older, the meetings revolve around the different days that people work. Although I enjoyed becoming a new mother, I did seek stimulation outside of the home and kept myself busy with baby groups and coffee groups etc. This was a form of sanity or me as I didn’t have family close by to share childcare with. After 3 years, I have adjusted to the slower pace of life when I am at home and I enjoy not rushing around as much. I make cakes with my son and do craft activities, things I never imagined doing as my own mother was not into these things. I am also back at work part-time as a teacher (11 hours a week) so perhaps I have the best of both worlds. However, I have had to accept a step-down in my career and on occasion, it still grates but I believe that this compensated for by having more time with my son. Each mother has to work out how they will balance their needs with their child’s needs and this may lead to a mother staying at-home, working part-time or working full-time. I know that not everyone is lucky enough to have a choice about going back to work or how many hours they do. Monetary reasons step in to make decisions for people. However, if you did have a choice about how many hours to do, what would be ideal? According to Belsky and Rovine, more than 20 hours of childcare per week for a child under the age of 1 year old is associated with insecure attachments. A US study of more than 17,000 children found that there is a relationship between number of hours in non-parental care and behaviour (Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Ritter & Turner, 2003). However, many mothers find caring for a baby or toddler tiring and stressful. They may not want to stay at home looking after their child. Obviously, if a mother is very stressed and unhappy this will affect the baby and in such situations it would be better for the mother to return to work. Brown and Harris (1978) found that women who don’t work and have several young children to care for are more likely to be depressed. There is no sense in a mother staying at home if she is depressed and unhappy. The child is more likely to become securely attached if the mother is happy but around less. Ultimately, it is hard for a mother to meet her child’s needs and at the same time meet her own needs but a mother must be happy for her child to be happy.

‘Psychology for parents: Birth to teens’ is for sale as an e-book on Amazon,, Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks and Apple ibookstore.

How do you help your baby become a secure child and adult?


English: Own photo, july 2005. nl:User Magalha...

Image via Wikipedia

Today one of my pregnant colleagues said she was thinking about going back to work when her new baby is 8 weeks old. I tried to say that the first year of a baby’s life is very important but I can see that without any psychological knowledge it might seem entirely a question of mother’s choice. After all, no one can ever remember their first year of life. On the other hand, research suggests that a baby’s first year is fundamental to their sense of security.

Attachment is a strong emotional bond between a caregiver and a baby and it said to form between 6 and 9 months old. Children who are securely attached to their mother want to be close to them especially when they are upset or scared. They dislike being separated from their mother and show pleasure at being reunited with their mother. Securely attached children use their mother as a safe and secure base from which to explore their world.

Schaffer and Emerson ( 1964)  observed infants from birth to 18 months old. They found that securely attached infants had mothers who responded quickly to their demands and offered the child the most interaction. It was not how much the mother fed, bathed or changed the child that mattered but the communication between the mother and baby. Mothers who were prepared to play, be responsive and interact in a type of conversation with their babies were more likely to have strongly, securely attached babies.

So why is a strong, secure attachment so important? Research shows that secure children are more likely to form good relationships with others as a child and as an adult. Securely attached children are also less likely to become aggressive and have good self-esteem.

So what happens if a parent finds it difficult to bond with a child? Some parents may feel it is difficult to interact with a small baby and may focus on attending to the baby’s needs rather than on communicating with the baby. However, being responsive to a baby and attempting to communicate with it is extremely important in the long-term. Psychological studies have shown that when mothers ignore their babies’ signals, the babies quickly become distressed.

Fortunately, most parents find it easy to communicate with their babies and the majority of parents are able to fine tune their responses to their babies’ actions and expressions. However, some mothers may find this difficult if they are suffering from postnatal depression or if they did not have particularly good relationship with their own parents. It is also the case that some babies are just more easily upset and cry more, making it more difficult for the mother to bond with their baby. The good news is that parents with even a more difficult baby can learn to be responsive and sensitive. Boom (1994) offered training to 50 mothers of babies aged 6 months assessed as having an irritable temperament (personality). At 12 months they were compared to a control group of irritable babies whose parents had not had the training. It was found that, unlike the control group, the number of securely attached babies in the training condition had increased significantly.

‘Psychology for parents: Birth to teens’ is for sale as an e-book on Amazon,, Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks and Apple ibookstore.

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