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By Kristin Kalning

My three-year-old son is a cuddly, snuggly hugger. He’s extra gentle with our aged, arthritic German Shepherd. His preschool teacher raves about how helpful he is, and if there’s a crying child within earshot, my little love bug is first on the scene with consoling concern.

Bang, bang, you're dead! Normal play or sign of a budding natural born killer?Getty Images stock / Today

So imagine my surprise when my angel took his pizza crust, pointed it at me and said, “It’s a gun, mommy. I’m shooting you.”

Related: School gives boy hard time for pizza "pistol"

I’m not naïve about boys and their firearm fascination: I have two brothers, and I grew up with their plastic green army men and their “Star Wars” weaponry. But my husband and I don’t buy toy guns for our preschooler, nor do we allow him to watch violent TV shows or movies. So when he repeatedly asked for a Nerf gun for Christmas, I wondered, was this abnormal? And should I be worried?

Not at all, said Michael Thompson, psychologist and co-author of the best-selling book “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.” It’s normal, he explained, for boys to be interested in what men do, and in whatever it takes to be strong and powerful like their dads and the other heroes in their lives.

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“Guns are part of what is ‘boy.’ They see pictures of policeman, detectives, cowboys, hunters … and they are all men,” Thompson wrote in an e-mail.

And it doesn’t much matter that my husband and I restrict toy guns and violent media: Boys are constantly seeing real-life and fictional examples of men, and they’re always watching older boys for cues, too. 

“All you have to do is look into the face of a three-year-old when he is watching five and six-year-olds play, and you know he is drinking it all in. ‘This is what it means to be a powerful boy! This is what men do!’ His mother telling him that guns aren’t nice cannot hold a candle to that modeling,” Thompson said.

OK, so it’s normal, this gun stuff. But what if I don’t want to be shot by a pizza crust? “You can say, ‘I don’t like being shot,’ and mean it,” counseled Thompson. But he also warned me not to over-focus on it, or make it more powerful than it is. 

When parents should worry, he said, is if their boys lack empathy, seem to really want to hurt others and are not remorseful after accidentally or intentionally hurting another child.

But aggressive play isn’t violence, said Thompson. If two kids are attacking and hurting each other, adults should intervene. But if two kids are running through the house pretending to shoot each other, that’s play. And there is no scientific evidence linking childhood play with adult violence, he said.

“Remember, most boys don’t imagine themselves as criminals. Boys see themselves as potential heroes. When people focus only on the ‘violence’ in boys’ fantasies, they miss the heroic element,” said Thompson.

Do you let your kids -- boys or girls -- play with toy guns?