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What's more dangerous: Letting your kids play with toy guns or not bothering to teach them how to confront real violence?

Playing War 

What's more dangerous: Letting your kids play with toy guns or not bothering to teach them how to confront real violence?

Feb. 15, 2003:


Driving home from the big anti-war march in Raleigh, I'm feeling pumped up. I've spent the last several hours roaming the crowd of thousands, reading clever protest signs and soaking up the hopeful energy that's radiating out from Fayetteville Street mall like it's a giant space heater. At this moment at the tail end of winter, it seems possible that our protest will make a difference--that we can melt icy hearts in Washington and keep this war from breaking out.

I pull into the driveway. Sam, my almost-6-year-old, greets me eagerly at the front door. He's dressed in full combat regalia--green-and-black splotched camouflage shirt, jacket, pants and army helmet. Clutched in one fist is his GI Joe action figure, which has lately become his favorite plaything. Sam talks to GI Joe, takes him with us on family outings--even has the toy standing guard outside his room at night. (Joe is at the ready atop an old index card file, plastic gun at his side. Next to him, a camouflage walkie-talkie sits in the bowl of Sam's helmet, in case they need to communicate in the dark).

I want to grip the furniture as I'm hit by a wave of psycho-spiritual vertigo. Worlds are colliding in my living room: the looming war with Iraq and my blond, blue-eyed boy playing soldier. I take a breath, look into Sam's smiling face and get a real grip. "GI Joe's just a toy and he's just a kid," I tell myself, as I give them both a hug. He's innocent.

Or is he? Since the fighting in Iraq began, there's been lots of ink devoted to the subject of talking to children about war. Newspaper stories, school newsletters and church bulletins are full of pithy, practical suggestions: Avoid exposure to graphic media images; answer questions honestly; give lots of hugs. Especially in North Carolina, where there are more than the usual share of kids whose parents are real GI Joes and Janes, the advice seems germane.

But it also reveals a dangerous disconnect. In most handouts I've seen, war and violence are presented as an aberration, not a norm. This, despite evidence--in our popular media, our neighborhoods and homes--that aggression is as ubiquitous as wallpaper. So we end up missing out on a truly teachable moment. We end up talking to kids about narrow aspects of the current war, but not the broader issue of our violent culture. We talk about what soldiers are doing right now in Iraq, but not about the society that put them there.

Where do war toys fit in? I have to wonder, if we weren't involved in a real war, if this would even be a live issue for me. I'm not one who's banned such toys from my home, though I sympathize with the reasons many parents want to do just that. I suspect that many of the people who showed up for the anti-war rally in Raleigh played with GI Joe as kids. So why is it so disturbing to watch my child doing the same thing?

I'm not out to spoil Sam's play by burdening him with frightening discussions of what real soldiers are doing in the Middle East. But right now, ignoring the potential consequences of his love for GI Joe doesn't seem right, either. It's not that I think playing with a toy will make him a killer. What I'm really concerned about is that he'll end up numb to the costs of real violence--that he'll grow up thinking war is a game.

The Problem


If ever there were a time to examine our war-toy-crazy culture, this would seem to be it. But for the most part, we're not going there. The notion that anything short of flag-waving is a sign of disrespect for the troops has kept the lid on much meaningful group discussion.

The top popped open for a brief moment during the just-finished Easter shopping season. Across the country, scattered outrage broke out over sales of Easter baskets outfitted with rifles, grenades and other military hardware at Wal-Mart, Kmart, Rite-Aid and Walgreens stores.

I found one in the Wal-Mart on Roxboro Road in Durham for just under $5, displayed nonchalantly among baskets stuffed with traditional chicks and bunnies. A green, plastic army soldier stood proudly over several pastel-colored candy packets. Within easy reach was a machine gun and a round of ammo only partially obscured by a big purple bow.

The baskets were a little too blatant for some consumers.

"Jesus wept," wrote Pete MacDowell in a letter to The Chapel Hill Herald. "Is any denomination of Christians interpreting the message of the Prince of Peace in terms of weapons of war? What are we teaching our children? What are we doing to ourselves?"

While Walgreens ended up pulling the military baskets, other stores continued to sell them. "This isn't the first time we've sold those items," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Karen Burk. "We share in the pride of all Americans toward our servicemen and women. We believe this item will be enjoyed by many of our customers. Customer demand is what determines the merchandise we sell."

This also isn't the first time that patriotism and free enterprise have combined to produce new toys. After the Persian Gulf War, board games and action figures with "Desert Shield" themes were rushed to store shelves. Some toys echoed the government's line on the nation's new "smart bomb"-style combat. One video game called "F-15 Strike Eagle" promised players the "thrill of commanding high-tech weapons without the real-life bloodshed."

So can we expect to see a collection of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" fighters on the shelves next Christmas?

That's affirmative! In fact, as a March 30 story in The New York Times makes clear, we don't have to wait that long. Small Blue Planet, an independent toy retailer, has already released an action-figure series called "Special Forces: Showdown with Iraq." The Times story says the company used designs based on media images of U.S. troops shown during the buildup to the current war.

The article describes how big toy manufacturers like Hasbro--the inventor of GI Joe--have worked with the U.S. Armed Forces for years, sharing designs and research that blur the lines between real and imagined warfare. "The M-16 rifle is based on something Mattel did," Glenn Flood, a Pentagon spokesman told reporter William Hamilton. Likewise, two days after the war in Iraq began, the article says, Hasbro officials were busily e-mailing Army researchers for updates on chemical protection suits and other innovations in military gear.

Perhaps chastened by such reports--and because it's clear, despite the flags, that the war in Iraq remains divisive--toy industry officials are on the defensive about the collusion between commerce and combat. Hasbro's spokeswoman didn't respond to several requests for information about how her company designs and markets toys. John Reilly, director of sales, promotion and public relations for KB Toys, said this in answer to similar questions on the retail side: "We are not commenting on the sale of those products or the influence of the war on the sale of those products. We're staying away from all of it right now. We're just in a quiet period."

The Parents


It's not so quiet, though, on the home front, where many parents are struggling with how to respond to the war. Local school psychologists and church pastors have received more calls from parents over the past several months--and often the question arises, "Is it OK for kids to play with war toys?"

Lynne Myers, a lead psychologist for Wake County public schools, says the war has merely highlighted what's been a "perennial concern" among a certain sector of parents and educators--how to handle aggressive play. "Before I became a school psychologist I worked in the field of early childhood education and this was a perpetual theme," she says. "Even with the kids who don't have violent toys, the parents would see them playing that way and wonder, 'What are we doing wrong?'"

In Myers' view, parents aren't doing anything wrong. Fighting words and actions are a normal part of growing up, she says, in the jolly tones of someone who's seen a lot of kids come through her doors. Exploring them can be healthy, she adds, "as long as children aren't being overly aggressive towards others." It's how they play that's important, not so much what they're playing with.

But talking to other parents, what I hear most is fear. Fear that our children aren't as safe as we'd like them to be, as we remember our own childhoods being. And fear that the toys they play with have made violence a little too compelling.

There's also confusion about where to draw the lines on which toys are truly "dangerous"--and how to keep them drawn without the commercial media eraser rubbing them out. In 2001, American toy companies spent $789 million on advertising, the Toy Industry Association reports. That was down from the $837 million they spent the previous year. As one child psychologist lamented, toy companies have more money to spend studying child development than any university.

Given what we're up against, our accommodations seem lame. We don't like overly realistic-looking toy weapons. But squirt guns are OK, aren't they? We don't allow military action figures to darken our doors. But our kids play with bulked-up, equipment-toting Rescue Heroes. Even non-martial toymakers like Lego are now producing aggressive action figures--the company's new Galidor line. Should we boycott those, too?

Jacquie Alford used to work at Sam's daycare and now runs the Wee Learning Center on Old Oxford Highway in Durham. I'm eager to talk to her because she's also raising a son (A.J. is 8 and daughter C.J. is 4 months) and because she's spent time in the U.S. Army Reserves. I assume her experience with basic training has made her more tolerant of war toys. But as it turns out, in Alford's household, toy guns are taboo.

AJ does play with toy swords, "He's big into Star Wars," says Alford, who's recently divorced and raising her kids on her own. But when he buys toys that include guns, he has to throw the weapons away. Alford smiles as she recalls a friend asking A.J. what he wants to be when he grows up. "He said, 'A policeman, but I don't know if my mom would let me because of the guns.'"

There's no denying the lure of such toys, especially for boys. "Boys always have to seem tougher," Alford says. "The best way to do that is to get the bad guy. And the best way to do that is with a gun." Although she played with toy guns when she was little and with her brother's GI Joe, she tells her kids she doesn't buy them now because "most guns are used to hurt other people."

It's her knowledge of real weaponry that's made Alford sensitive to the trivializing effect toy guns can have. As for whether prohibiting them now will only make the real ones more attractive later on, "I tell A.J. we're just talking about right now, and right now I don't like guns," she says. "We can talk about this again later when he's older."

A.J. hasn't talked about the war in Iraq much, except to make sure his mom won't be called to active duty again. "He wanted to know if I was all the way out, "Alford says.

The Experts


Mar. 22, 2003: We're driving home from a trip to Dollar General, where we've agreed to let Sam buy another war toy. We haven't yet banned any category of toy (though we have rejected specific models) except those that involve staring at a screen. Instead, we've tried to cut back on our overall toy consumption and when we do encounter toy weapons, talk about using them safely.

Sam's eager to show me the accessories his new action figure comes with (knives, guns, extra ammo), and he seems impressed by the soldier's tough, desert-camo appearance. "Mom, look at this guy!" he says, showing me a tiny scar across the soldier's cheek. Sam's at the stage where a certain playground persona is starting to emerge and measures of size and physical strength are important to him. I hide a smile that looms when I realize that as usual, this "Combat Patrol" soldier may have outsized, six-pack abs, but lacks other important male equipment. We wouldn't want to get too authentic, now would we?

From the back seat, Sam surprises me with one of his laser-beam questions. "Mom, are you cheering for America, Iraq or both?" His antennae have definitely picked up the signals--he knows we're not enthusiastic about this war. We've also talked about the fact that America hasn't won every war it's ever fought. Still, it takes me a long moment to answer back.

"Both," I say, and mark the silence that ensues. This is a hard concept for him to accept. And it's one his new toy can't help him with. Finally, he comes to a decision. "I'm cheering for America," he says, bouncing the soldier on his lap.

I'm not out to squelch any of Sam's natural interests, or cast adult shadows on his current view of war as a contest for which you choose sides and "cheer." Still, I can't help feeling uneasy about his growing military collection.

It's time to talk to some experts.

John Fairbank is an associate professor of medical psychology at Duke University Medical Center and co-director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. He emphasizes that whatever their opinions on the war and war toys, before talking to kids, parents must separate their own feelings from what's developmentally appropriate behavior. "And it is developmentally appropriate for a 6-year-old boy to run around as GI Joe." As long as kids aren't hurting themselves or others, there's no reason to worry, Fairbanks adds. Still, he acknowledges that it's "challenging" dealing with the way toys are sold through commercial media.

And there, the messages aren't so comforting. The Women's Center in Chapel Hill has launched a media literacy project to get kids talking about gender issues. One of their training videos describes the way GI Joe's look has changed over time to become an aggressive, supersized version of masculinity. When the toy was introduced in 1964, Joe's biceps were the equivalent of a normal 12.2 inches, the video notes. By 1974, they'd bulked up to 15.2 inches and by 1998, to 26.8 inches. By comparison, baseball star Mark McGwire's are 20 inches.

But whether hulking action figures encourage supersized behavior isn't so clear. Sandy Gillespie, who's head of pre-school programs at the Duke School, says one of the things she likes about GI Joe is that it's a way for boys to play with dolls. "There's so much homophobia out there with boys," says Gillespie, who has a son in 7th grade. "With Ken, they know that's not acceptable. But GI Joe is OK."

Not surprisingly, toy companies reject any link between toys and violent behavior. An online statement by the Toy Industry Association pooh-poohs the idea that banning toy guns will reduce violence, calling it "hysterical and magical in its sense of toy effects and its beliefs in pacifying the world through removing war toys."

It's true there are few if any studies showing a cause-and-effect relationship between war toys and violence (though recent studies on the effects of TV watching and aggressive behavior in kids show the "correlation" is greater than that between calcium intake and bone mass). But what the industry doesn't talk about is whether our commercially hyped war toys end up desensitizing kids to violence or trivializing the effects of war.

Consider one of the "Dirty Dozen" toys singled out by The Lion and Lamb Project in its annual roster of toys to avoid (see "Resource List," ) The "Military Forward Command Post" by Ever Sparkle Industrial toys is a playset that looks like a home that's been struck by a bomb. "There are holes in the roof, one wall is demolished, bullets are scattered on the floor, and the porch railings are broken." The playhouse also comes with "accessories," including a machine gun, rocket launcher and explosives.

Despite such examples, not everyone agrees that blasting the toy companies is the most effective solution. Elizabeth Chin is an associate professor of anthropology at Occidental College in California who's been studying toys and kids' consumer behavior for years. She says toys shouldn't be the prime target of concern; they merely reflect what's already out there in society.

Chin recently reread studies done by Kenneth Clark in the 1960s in which black children showed a preference for playing with white dolls--revealing racist attitudes at work on their self image. "What people took away from his research was, well if we provide different dolls, kids will feel better about themselves," she says. "But the problem isn't the dolls. The problem is, we live in a racist culture. With violence it's the same thing."

Chin is critical of prohibitions that rely on idealized visions of innocent children and saccharine play. Not only does that leave certain kids out (are there no girls who long to play with GI Joe?), it also convinces parents they can shield their kids simply by buying the "right" toy.

"This notion that our children should be innocent really comes out of our own need to have people who are not caught up in the awfulness of the world," Chin says. "It's a very privileged position and most kids in the world--and even many kids here--don't have that option. They are the ones picking up the real guns and becoming child soldiers."

The Focus Group


March 30, 2003: I'm about ready to throw up my hands and say 'war toys are beside the point' when I go to a toy store at the mall and stumble across a new line of military action figures called "World Peacekeepers." My outrage meter is ticking again. These peacekeepers aren't carrying a blue flag of the United Nations. They look just like... the U.S. troops we're watching on TV. It's not the martial nature of this toy that offends; it's the message it sends. To me, the concept of an imperial peacekeeper runs along the same line of thinking that turns a preemptive strike into a "war of liberation"; that says a war is OK as long as casualties don't go above a certain number and that violence is always the preferred foreign policy option. And of course, I can't help noticing where this "peacekeeper" will be carrying out his orders: it's all desert-camo as far as the eye can see. (A few days later, a friend tells me about a collection of plastic soldiers he saw at the mall. The green ones had the U.S. flag, while the sand-colored ones flew a banner with the Muslim symbols of a star and crescent).

I decide to convene my own focus group to help me sift through the issues. What I learn is that indifference is the flip side of our violent culture--and it might be the worst enemy we face right now.

The participants all have children older than Sam--so presumably, they've acquired wisdom I lack--and they all work in the field of violence prevention. Several have links to the Family Violence and Rape Crisis Center in Pittsboro. Jo Sanders is the group's longtime director, Kit Gruelle-Prather is a former staff member who's now doing violence prevention training for police, and Susanne Saunders is a counselor at the center's shelter. John Shoneman runs Dovetail Construction and is the father of two grown sons and a daughter. His kids (along with the kids of others at the table) attended the Carolina Friends School in Durham, which teaches Quaker ideals of nonviolence. LibbyAnn Capaldi is a grandmother who hosts spiritual gatherings on her land.

We meet in the kitchen of Gruelle-Prather's Chatham County home and while a roaring rainstorm pounds the back yard, our conversation swirls around the subject of war toys and the links between pretend and real violence. There's no doubt things have escalated for our kids. "In my high school, a fight meant a fistfight," Gruelle-Prather says. "Now, it's evolved into drive-by shootings."

The toys have changed, too, becoming on the one hand more realistic and on the other, more abstract. "Just look at the video games," notes Shoneman. "The pilots who are in Iraq now were raised with video. There's a disconnect when you see that flash of light. If kids are allowed to just plug themselves into these games ..."

Sanders says young people in her life insist there's nothing to it--these are just games. "But I say, 'You don't know what you're talking about.' I know they are aware of the violence. It's the numbing I'm worried about."

There's numbing going on with grownups, as well. Why is it OK for adults to watch sanitized images of real war on TV but it's not acceptable for kids to play out the violence they see around them?

To turn things around, group members say, we have to find ways of making the consequences of violence tangible for our kids--make the connections our popular culture too often fails to make. Capaldi describes visiting a military hospital during the Vietnam War and how the sight of wounded men in wheelchairs changed her view of combat. Maybe we should be paying more attention to the war veterans in our lives.

It might be worth boycotting some toys. "We shouldn't walk into the stores where you see those GI Joe Easter baskets," Saunders says. But we have to go further than that, the group agrees, by engaging with our kids to find out what messages they're receiving and which ones they're actually absorbing.

Engaging isn't easy at a time when unquestioning allegiance is seen as model behavior. But we should seize the moment, "because it's in our face," Gruelle-Prather says. "Here's the chance to look our kids in the eye and say, 'This is what war means.' Do a reality check with them. It's not a game. None of this is a game."

Changing the rules of engagement


April 9, 2003: I'm feeling pumped up, but in a different way than I did after the anti-war rally. I finally have some clarity about what it is I dislike about our expanding arsenal of war toys (including the ones that don't look like war toys)--and what I want to do about it.

I agree with those who call for "heightened vigilance" and "heightened engagement" with our kids. But fighting against war toys merely to protect our own children doesn't seem like a very good way to teach empathy.

This can't just be about buying the "right" toy or encouraging the "right" play (as if we know what that is). It has to be about making kids aware of how violence works in our lives--how we reward it, as well as fear it, and who are its most frequent victims. We have to cop to our own fascination with power and control, and we have to find ways, without scaring them too much, of showing the toll violence takes--including on those who perpetrate it.

So Sam can keep his GI Joe, but we might want to have a talk about those "World Peacekeepers." We'll keep answering his questions and listening to his ideas. We won't prevent him from exploring what's out there (within reasonable limits). But we won't let him become passive in the face of it either. And I'll take him with me to the next anti-war rally. For now, he can cheer for America all he wants. As long as he eventually learns not to treat war and violence like child's play.

A resource list


Here are some ways to find out more about kids, toys and violence:

Lion and Lamb Project, a national advocacy group that distributes an annual list of "12 Toys to Avoid": www.lionlamb.org

From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, explores the complexities of children's video games and the rise of the "girls' games" movement.

Toy Industry Association,www.toy-tia.org industry revenues, top selling toys, and the industry response to claims that toys contribute to violence.

The Million Mom organization, www.ncmmm.org, Wake County, (919) 821-1988; West Triangle, (919) 419-1458.

The Women's Center in Chapel Hill's MAGIC project (Media Analysis of Gender and Image Construction, (919) 968-4610.

Project Enlightenment, based in Raleigh, has resources for teachers and parents of pre-schoolers, (919) 856-7778.

Ben Piggott, award-winning organizer of the annual Peace Toys for War Toys exchange program held in Winston-Salem. His work number is (336) 727-2837. EndBlock

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