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Barbara F. Meltz writes the Globe's Child Caring column. She is author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Understanding How Your Children See the World," and a frequent speaker to parent groups. Join her chat on the first and third Monday of the month at noon.
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Monday, May 7, 2007

War toys make a harsh vacation re-entry

Coming back to the office after a vacation there's usually a period of transition before my work-juices get flowing, so I don't know if I should thank Wild Planet Toys or be angry with them. Among the loot awaiting my return were these two toys, front and center on my desk:

bomb blast.jpg
This is Wild Planet's Pirate Bomb Blast. Here's what the packaging says: "Pass the bomb before the time runs out! Fuse lights up & hisses so you can play in the dark! Turn it ion...pass the bomb...KA-BOOOM! If you're holding it, you're out!"

waterball cannon.jpg
This is the Waterball Pirate Cannon," whose packaging boasts, "Launches 100 mini cannonballs of water per tank!"

That I really don't like toys of weaponry is only half of what got my blood boiling this morning. Here's the other half: The toys are being pitched to children as young as 4-years-old.

Given the hype and excitement that continues to accompany the popularity of "Pirates of the Caribbean" (it's the rage even on the other side of the pond, I noticed on my vacation), I can just hear all the preschool boys clammoring for these toys. Believe me, I am sympathetic to their moms and dads; I wasn't immune to this kind of marketing when my son was young. But I learned that a boy with an imagination can have just as much fun pretending to be a pirate without owning toys that concidentally glamorize violence and cruelty.

In fact, even Wild Planet apparently knows that. It's also marketing a pirate toy that has nothing to do with violence.
pocket watch jpg.jpg

This is the "Pocket Watch," that's "a watch, a compass and message revealer!"

For more on war toys, read this column I wrote in 1999.

THURSDAY, May 20, 1999
By Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff


Jonah Gorski of Newton was 10 when he got his first toy gun, a plastic pistol that shot rubber-tipped darts. As toy guns go, he thought it was pretty innocuous. But after a lifetime of hearing about why war toys are bad for kids, Jonah figured his father would throw it out, and he did. He also expected his dad to dispose of the Laser Challenge gun game he got for his birthday that same year, but he didn't.

It's a lapse Peter Gorski regrets.

A pediatrician and the president of the Massachusetts Caring for Children Foundation, Gorski says, ``It's the only toy gun I ever let into our house, a gift from a friend whose parents I didn't know. I wasn't bold enough to impose my convictions on them.''

As it turns out, that one lapse may have been instructive.

Jonah, now 12, was quick to agree to the rules his parents imposed for Laser Challenge, for instance, playing no more than 20 minutes at a time. Before long, though, he gave it up and not because of his parents' obvious unhappiness.

``It got boring,'' says Jonah. ``I have a lot of other things I like to do that are a lot more fun.''

Those words are music to Peter Gorski's ears, and they ought to embolden other parents, too, as we struggle with a new round of ``Star Wars'' toys and a new summer's worth of souped-up squirt guns, both set against our heightened sensitivity to gun play in the wake of Littleton.

Is it harmful for children to play with war toys? Even among those who dislike them, there is a range of opinion.

Harvard University developmental psychologist Ron Slaby rails against any toy with a violent theme, including toy guns; action figures (even the good guys) who use violence; video and computer games like Nintendo; and any game that uses shooting, even if it's only paint.

``They are all rehearsal for real-life violence,'' he says.

Daphne White, a Bethesda, Md., mother and director of the Lion & Lamb Project, a national grass-roots organization that provides support for parents on this issue, was determined that her son, David, would have no war toys. That takes conviction, as well as a deaf ear: You have to be able to tolerate cries of ``You're a terrible mother!'' and ``But all my friends have one!''

She admits it wasn't easy, but she held on to her mantra, which she shared with David: ``Violence is not OK under any circumstances.'' Nonetheless, she worried peers might exclude him. They never did.

``He always had games and activities no one else had, so kids loved playing at our house,'' she says.

For parents who want to take the no-guns-at-all route, educational psychologist Doris Bergen recommends banding together with like-minded parents. ``It's ideal if they are the parents of your son's playmates, but even if they aren't, at least he won't feel alone in the world on this,'' she says.

Early childhood educator Diane Levin of Wheelock College is one of the nation's most outspoken critics of toys with violent messages. But her research also shows the importance of parents staying connected to children.

``If a rigid position cuts you off from your son and makes him feel isolated from his friends and angry at you as a result, you leave the lessons he learns more open to the influence of others,'' she says.

For parents like her, the trick is to find a position that feels comfortable in principle and practice. This can be hardest when our sons are in preschool, the age when they are most insistent about wanting war toys. There are two reasons why:

- They are working out what it means to be male. ``They are very concrete thinkers, so, as they struggle with gender identification, they latch on to salient features,'' says Levin. Because adult as well as children's culture is rife with images of men engaged in war, violence, and toughness, these are the behaviors boys identify with maleness and try on for size, through mimickry.

- They are working out how to control impulses and anger, and how to conquer certain fears such as separation from parents. ``Playing good guys vs. bad makes them feel powerful and helps resolve internal conflicts: They symbolically project their fear or anger onto the bad guy,'' says early childhood educator Nancy Carlsson-Paige of Lesley College. She is coauthor with Levin of several books, including ``Who's Calling the Shots? How to Respond Effectively to Children's Fascination with War Play, War Toys and Violent TV'' (NAEYC Press).

Unfortunately, these two developmental needs can feed off each other, so that it's difficult to untangle what issue a child is working on. ``The more violence they see, the more they not only want to play it out but actually need to, to master the experience,'' says Bergen, who teaches at Miami University in Ohio. Even if you don't allow a child this age to play with war toys, she says, he'll likely take almost any object, from a stick to a piece of toast, and pretend it's a gun or sword.

We should not necessarily stop him from doing that: How a child plays is more important than what he plays with, according to developmentalists like Bergen, Levin, and Carlsson-Paige.

Of course, some children get more caught up in war play and action heroes than others, a result of temperament, a reaction to what is happening in their lives, or both. Carlsson-Paige tells of two brothers whose parents were going through divorce. ``The 2-year-old put on his Superman cape, a red towel, every day when he woke up and kept it on all day. He was Superman. It empowered him; it was how he learned to cope,'' she says. The older brother read books.

Whether the aggressive play involves toast chewed into the shape of a gun or a toy sword, our job is to pay close attention to the play and be prepared to intervene.

``If two preschool boys play the same game over and over so that it looks scripted; if the play is very aggressive and imitates the show's shooting, karate chops and the like; if the toys are highly realistic replicas of what they see on the screen; and if the play at the end of the day looks exactly the same as it did in the morning, that's not good,'' says Levin.

She suggests finding ways to break its scripted nature and get them to use their imagination: ``Your Star Wars action figures look really dirty. I wonder if they'd like a bath?'' and offer to fill the tub. Or, ``They must be starving,'' and suggest making Play-Doh food or mud pies.

It's less problematic if a child's play is more creative from the get-go, even if he's pretending the paper towel tube is a gun. ``If it's a gun one day and a telescope the next, and if they were fighting aliens in the morning and wild animals in the afternoon, you know there's creativity at work. This child is working on his own issues, not issues dictated to him by a TV script,'' says Levin. ``That's healthy.''

With either child, however, if you see play that's too aggressive, repetitive, or mean-sounding, say so. Levin suggests doing it in a way that keeps you connected: ``I know you like to pretend you're Darth Maul [a new evil `Star Wars' character] but you were so mean, it felt like you really were him. I was worried! I want to make sure you know you're still my little boy!'' ' Or: ``When the two of you get worked up, I worry you'll get hurt. What can we do to make sure no one does?''

Developmentally, boys lose interest in war play in the late elementary school years. But, says Bergen, ``Because violence dominates video play and because there are more sophisticated gun toys geared to the older child, kids stay with it.'' That increases the likelihood that they will buy into the violent message and highlights the need for parents to remain vigiliant, she says.

Gorski has consistently told Jonah and his younger son, Matt, that video games are bad for the brain: ``They help you to grow stupid.'' White lets her son have Nintendo, but only the sport games. Levin's son has had two toy guns in his life, a cowboy gun at 5 (the result of a trade he negotiated) and a giant squirt gun as a preteen, but only after he agreed it would be used in a specific part of the yard, never out in the neighborhood, and would never be squirted randomly, only at people who had agreed to play.

Like Jonah, these children are well aware of their parents' objections and have not always been happy with them.

``I know I'm different from a lot of kids,'' says Jonah. ``Sometimes I wish I could be like them, but then it crosses my mind that I'm proud of my parents for standing up for something. It hasn't stopped me from having friends. Friends like me for who I am, not for the toys I have.''

- Telling a preschooler, ``You can't have a toy gun because a real gun can kill someone,'' doesn't compute for him because he can't make the leap from concrete to abstract. Say instead, ``Kids get hurt from pretend play with guns because they get so wild, even when they don't mean to''; or, ``Real shooting can hurt. Even pretending it is mean and not nice.''

- Tell an older child, ``Guns are serious things. Even seeing a toy gun reminds me of all the real accidents from real guns.''

- Teach even a preschooler: If you find a gun you think is real, never touch it, and tell an adult right away.

- Research shows that school-age boys who engage in lots of war play, including video games with guns, are most at risk for not being able to distinguish between real and fantasy violence and for becoming increasingly aggressive because they think they can never be strong or tough enough.

- Boys who don't like war play and/or violent video games may feel ashamed for not being like other boys. They need lots of support for the activities they do enjoy.

- The Lion & Lamb Project can help you talk to your children about war toys and has Parent Action Kits available. Call toll-free 888-708-4201 or go to the Web site http//

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 11:57 AM
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