It’s a scary world out there sometimes. Toddlers don’t know quite as much about current events as their parents or caregivers do, though, which means they have no context for the way it can scare caregivers when they get interested in violent toys and rough games. Many parents and guardians look at a toddler’s sudden fondness for toy weapons and worry that it’s a sign of too much aggression, or a first step in a dangerous direction, but going through a stage of interest in rough play or toy weapons is totally normal, and can be a healthy part of pretend play.
Pretend play may seem like it’s all fun and games, but it’s also a serious business that can have important effects on toddlers’ imaginations, attention spans, and future classroom performance. For many high-energy toddlers, often especially boys, rough play and play with toy weapons are some of the most vivid pretend play situations in their minds, and may be the type of pretend-play that they spend the most time in, and develop the furthest.
Even toddlers, who aren’t always sure about the line between fantasy and reality, can begin to differentiate between fantasy and reality, and pretend play can be an important part of that process. Your toddler knows that the squirt gun she has pointed at your chest isn’t going to hurt you, just like she knows that the rocks she put on her teddy bear’s plate aren’t going to get eaten. And in the case of the squirt gun, she doesn’t just know it, she’s counting on it.
In fact, a 2013 study comparing aggressive pretend play with toddlers’ actual displays of aggression in the classroom suggested that tots who spend more time in aggressive play have less aggression in the classroom. Aggression that gets channeled into play may have a better chance of being exercised there, so that a toddler’s behavior in the real world can be calmer and more socially acceptable.
A toddler’s main job is trying to make sense of the world, and since the world is a massive and often hugely confusing and contradictory place, it’s a very tough job to do - most adults still don’t feel like they’ve fully figured it out. The “good guys and bad guys” narrative that many children and toddlers weave into rough play or combat play is a natural step towards understanding the world, and it’s nothing you or your toddler should be worried about, but it’s also exactly that, a first step. It’s nothing for your toddler to be embarrassed about, and nothing you need to judge or feel worried about, but it’s also not where her development should or is going to stop.
Without making her feel embarrassed or judged about the direction her imaginary play takes, you can start to encourage her to start to think about the ways the world is a little bit more complicated than “good guys and bad guys” by asking her what the bad guys’ motives might be for being so bad (or even just what they’ve done to become bad guys - plenty of toddlers like to start their games with the baseline assumption of “goodness” or “badness,” assumed, but asking what those things mean to her can get her thinking, and give you an interesting - and hilarious - window into the mind of a toddler). If your baby isn’t interested in these kinds of questions, there’s no need to push it, though you can always try again another time. If she is, though, you can move on to asking her if there are any other ways her “good guys versus bad guys” scenario can be solved that don’t involve violence. She might not be interested, or might not take the bait right away, but it doesn’t hurt to plant the idea in her head.
As your toddler plays, it can also be helpful to remind her of the difference between fantasy and reality. Pretend play can be one of the ways toddlers start to learn about that difference, but they are still in the process of learning, and the reminder that the games she plays are pretend can be helpful.
Above all, it can be a good idea to remember that the things you forbid your baby are likely to start to seem more and more interesting and exciting. A toddler who isn’t allowed to have toy guns in the house may turn anything vaguely gun-shaped into a weapon, and a toddler who isn’t allowed to play war games at home may go over the top the first time she plays with a friend whose parents don’t have that rule. Moderation is a great tool for keeping your toddler from going over the top at her first chance.
Limiting your child’s exposure to violent TV and video games can be helpful for limiting some violent play before it starts, but as your toddler grows, there’s a good chance she will end up with some exposure one way or another. Rough or violent play isn’t always associated with exposure to violence in media, though. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends limiting children’s exposure to screen-time in general.
Plenty of kids show an interest in violent games growing up, and it's usually nothing to worry about, but you should speak with your baby's pediatrician if you are concerned in any way.