Here are portions of several comments:
I was reading about how boys do seem to play with "weapons" even if they're not allowed to play with toy guns and the like. What I was reading suggested that parents allow their sons to do so without trying to make them feel shame for what seems to be a natural outlet for boys. Also: denying the play altogether has that "don't you wish you could" siren song that might just aggravate the situation, while left alone most boys grow out of the need to swashbuckle.These comments address three different aspects of violent play: it's just play, acting out feelings, and imitating example. So here are my thoughts on it all.~My mom learned from play therapy with [little ones adopted out of assorted troubled situations] that it's actually important to allow children that "violent" outlet. It's a safe and effective way children act out their aggression and face their fears, and parents need to just act along...
The kids have fun and are able to act out any bad feelings they have, with [mom or dad] being the bad guy and them being victorious heroes in the end. There's something about it that is quite empowering to them. Play therapy is very interesting stuff...~I've always found that no matter how much you try to "shelter" kids from violence, they still like to act it out and make believe such things. Of course, how you talk about violence and portray it in your own life will be shadowed by your children. It's your example that makes the difference.
I certainly get that a certain amount of aggressive (even violent) play is normal and natural and even a healthy release...but even in play, I hope to guide my children in healthy directions, so that as they get older those healthy contexts are implanted in their brains. ☺
The first thing that matters is safety. One commenter mentioned taking a foam swim noodle and cutting it in half to make soft 'swords' for her kids to use. We have done something similar. We also have a good supply of soft beanbags (I fill mine with rice or wheat or lentils so they are softer than beans, I know moms who fill them with fabric scraps or batting!) We try to have safe spaces (no breakable stuff) for rough-and-tumble play. Of course we intervene if anyone is actually getting hurt or scared by the play.
We also teach gun safety. We do keep a hunting rifle in the house (it is kept unloaded, out of reach, has a trigger lock, and the ammo is kept elsewhere...but it's a gun). Even if you don't keep any guns in your home, you should teach your children these simple rules because you never know when they might encounter one.
The second thing that matters is diversity in play. Yes, I'll accept that it's natural to enact violent or aggressive things, however it's also good to play at peaceful things. So we have baby dolls (yep, even for boys--they'll be daddies one day!). We have play food. We have legos and lincoln logs and building blocks and a wooden train set. I teach them knitting and sewing and cooking as they get old enough to do those things too. So sure, they play at being warriors or hunters, but they also play at being parents, builders, and creators.
We also encourage athletic and outdoor activities so that they have plenty of non-violent outlets for their energy. I personally feel that martial arts classes are great (better than wrestling or boxing) because they focus on self control, safety, and a defensive mindset, while still being very cool "fighting" classes.
The final--and in my opinion biggest--thing that matters is the thoughts behind the behavior. Contrary to the old saying, I believe that good intentions DO matter when dealing with children.
We've adopted a household policy of following the "law of the jungle" (which is that it is ok to kill to eat, or in self-defense). We try to follow this both in real life and in play. We also talk about scripture warriors like Gideon, David, and Moroni. We discuss how they followed God's word about defending their family/home/freedom, but how if they took the offensive then they lost His help. Sometimes we talk about samauri or knights and the codes of honor that traditionally went along with being a warrior.
So, according to the law of the jungle, hunting is ok--so long as you intend to respect the animal by killing cleanly and using all the parts. Fishing is the same (though that doesn't surface as often in their play!). When we hunt/fish or otherwise slaughter our own meat we involve our children in this process. (I admit that I am thoroughly squeamish about doing my own butchering, but I believe I would be hypocritical to eat meat if I were not willing to be part of the whole process, and since we have chosen to be omnivores, this is what we do.)
War games are ok in play (such as legos, army men, fencing, wrestling, beanbag wars, balloon fights, foam swords, etc). When they are playing that way, we revisit the scripture warriors. We don't allow video/computer games that involve hurting or shooting people (animal shooting would be ok as per the hunting thing, and target practice is fine). We don't allow any games with blood (realistic or fake-looking) or that otherwise glorify death. We do not watch or allow violent movies for young children (as they get into their teens we intend to allow a few specific films with realistic historical depictions for the educational value).
So there you have it.
What are your thoughts?