War Toys and Christmas

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Christmas Pack #8

War Toys and Christmas:
A Contradiction in Terms

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I'm afraid of my toys.

War Toys and Christmas:
A Contradiction in Terms

Rachel G. Gill


This material on Christmas, children and violent toys is a reflection/action piece to help families, church groups and educators deal with a society that pushes militarism on its children through violence oriented toys. It may be used as a resource for developing awareness and initiating action on the issues around war toys. We believe it will be especially helpful for parents of young children.

Toys ARE Us! A Parent's Perspective

No society interested in attaining peace and justice can allow militarization of the young to go unchallenged. Any vision of a future without war and mass killing is impossible if the young are raised to be passive consumers of their society's military mentality. - War Resisters League

The door before me opened soundlessly. But as I walked down the entrance hall, colors on the wall -- geometrical patterns in vivid, angry colors -- screamed at my senses. I rounded the corner to the display area and was completely overwhelmed by floor to ceiling shelves, spilling over with merchandise for children. This was Toyland!

My children are adults now, so I have not been a serious, consistent consumer in the toy market for more than a decade. After my initial shock at the raucous enormity of the place, I admit to some nostalgia as I walked those aisles, remembering, with pleasure and pain, times when decisions about toys were an important part of my life, when the pulls between our children's programmed wants and our value oriented perspective on their needs were often in conflict.

I am certain my husband and I were not always successful in our attempts to provide creative substitutes when we, with some deliberation, questioned our children's wants. Specific toys were important cultural symbols in their world. And it was difficult to explain why we, as parents, often rejected those symbols.

My brief visit to a toy store helped me realize when an even more difficult task today's parents of young children face. Giant shelves, stocked with violent dolls and grotesque monsters included every imaginable accessory for creative destruction. Other shelves were piled high with perfect imitations of military and police weapons.

In the store I visited those symbols of violence, even scaled down versions, gave off an oppressive, almost hallucinatory atmosphere which seemed to affect shoppers immediately. Children became "hyper" as soon as they entered the so-called "super action heroes" section. Their shrill screams of excitement could he heard throughout the store. Adults were affected, too. One lady walked up and down the aisles in a distraught stare, lamenting loudly to anyone who would listen, "There's not a single puppet in the store! Can you believe it? Not a single puppet in the entire store!"

That mother's anguished cry was real. And as I looked around me, her distress became my own. I realized that the absence of simple, creative playthings in that great toy depository is not accidental. It is a fact that speaks with authority about the world we live in.

It is a lamentable truth that we feel surrounded by violence; we live in an atmosphere that not only tolerates but encourages violence. In television programming, movies and the print media, as well as current interpretations of America's role in the world, adults are surrounded by unspoken macho ideals like "might makes right" and the "survival of the fittest," that are supported with unprecedented military might. We are encouraged in insidious ways to deal with weakness in other people and with other countries from a position of strength and always with "our best interest" in mind.

It is alarming, but not surprising, how these ideas of power and domination have penetrated our children's world. As participants in those values, toy industries believe that self interest dictates both their role to provide and their right to sell violent toys. And their profit indicators support their "good business" decisions. In the last decade the sale of war toys has risen more than 1000%. But lest we stray far from what this startling statistic means, adults must face the fact that it is not children who supply the toy industry with their profit margins; it is adults.

But adults may be contributing to the violence factor for today's children by providing another disturbing wrinkle to this complicated mixture of children, toys and war games. It is possible that children who play violent war games are not simply victims of television advertising and an unscrupulous toy market. They also may be imitating adults with whom they live.

The phenomenon called The National Survival Game is a complicated adult version of a child's game often referred to as Capture the Flag. Wearing camouflage trousers, jackets, gloves, heavy boots and often using face masks, these weekend war game players carry pistols whose pellets sting and raise welts These adult players confess to getting hooked on the "adrenaline high" end "instinct toning" of a three hour game, many of them claiming they have never felt so alive.

What does this mean? An admittedly simplistic analysis of these activities suggest that our society encourages adults to play like children and children to play like adults, with both groups using war games as a means for having fun. And on another level, national and international leaders also "play at war" with deadly games of "I dare you," in which nuclear holocaust, rather than the enemy's flag, is the prize of the battle.

It may be a long way from a discussion of war toys for children, with which this article began, to nuclear holocaust. Unfortunately, we may have to become aroused enough to accept the possibility that these two issues are interrelated.

Today's adults and children are caught up in games that are far more frightening than those provided by the contents of shelves in a toy store: We have bought into our world leaders' obsessions with military solutions to people problems. And if we believe, with most child psychologists, that play is a child's work, we make our legacy to future generations when we provide our children with up to  date symbols of violence and allow them to play at war. The values of our truculent, embattled society will become the norm for our children.

What can we do? To use words that come directly from war terminology, we can protect our children by providing them with a buffer zone. This is a "game against war" to which every thoughtful, loving adult should be committed.

We take some risks when we do this. We will certainly encounter the displeasure of our children if we interrupt their involvement with the symbols of their world. Even more than adults, children have difficulty trying to distance themselves from their culture. They are highly impressionable and easily conditioned to want what their friends have or what they see on TV. Children allowed unrestricted exposure to mass media hard sell, calculatingly and carefully designed by well-planned market research, are unlikely to want anything other than what they are told to want. Adults must assume some responsibility in determining when children's wants conflict with their needs.

Jesus once asked a question that may shed some light on this current dilemma with our children. "Which one of you, if your child asks for bread, would give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, would give him a scorpion?" The answer. of course, is obvious. No loving adult would feed a hungry child on a diet of stones and scorpions.

But what is a parent to do if a child asks for a warrior doll, robot warriors, or robot tanks? It is not easy, but parents who say "no" to such requests are taking an important stand; they are refusing to feed their child's hunger for play on a diet of violence and savagery.

Each Christmas we are faced with questions about gift giving. What do we give our children? What is appropriate for celebrating the birthday of the Prince of Peace? When we think of it in those terms, some disciplined thinking about creative substitutes for violent toys is certainly in order.

What Can We Do?

It is unfortunate that corporate promoters find an easy target in children. Media hype and peer pressure make it almost impossible for children to prefer toys which promote reason, exploration and sharing over toys that promote violence.

What is a caring parent or adult friend to do? Begin by carefully evaluating toys you buy. Every time you purchase a toy, your adult values are passed on to the child who receives that toy. Avoid buying toys that promote violence.

Guidelines for Selecting Toys

  1. Look the toy over carefully and think about its purpose. What will the child be learning or imitating from the use of this toy?
  2. Read the packaging. What is the attitude toward life promoted by this toy?
  3. What is the toy's play value? Can it be used again and again in a variety of ways? Is it appropriate for this child's age level? Will it isolate the child in play or assist the child in social development?
  4. Does it help the child to develop imagination without being lost in a world of overwhelming fantasy?
  5. Does it assist the child in learning to cope with and bring order to the real world?
  6. Would I feel comfortable involved in the child's play with this toy?
  7. Are the concepts presented by the toy appropriate for a child?
  8. What values does the toy promote? Does it promote concern for the earth? Is it in tune with what I want my child to grow up to be? (Questions taken from "Peace Through Tyranny,'' a brochure written by Mary Pliska of The Toy Project, Wichita Falls, Texas. )

Community Activities

  1. Write a letter of support to the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV), an organization that actively opposes war cartoons and revenge movies. Membership $25. Write NCTV, P.O. Box 2157, Champaign, IL 61820. 217/384 1920.
  2. Urge your congressional representatives to get involved in regulating children's programming. Organize a letter writing campaign in your church or P.T.A. group.
  3. Join The War Resisters League in its attempts to "Stop War Toys." The League has proclaimed the year's most popular shopping days - the two days immediately following Thanksgiving - the International Days Against War Toys. They sponsor vigils, leaflet shoppers, hold public meetings, put on alternative toy fairs, etc. to show outrage over the commercial militarization of children. War Toys Campaign, Box 1093, Norwich, CT 05360. 203/889 5337.
  4. Organize a boycott against local stores that sell war toys. The War Toys Boycott Campaign, a Canadian group, sponsors War Toys Free Zones (homes, schools, churches, towns, etc. which declare a ban on war toys), and the boycott, scheduled annually on the Saturday following Thanksgiving. War Toys Boycott Campaign, 9 Melbourne Ave., Toronto, Ontario, Canada M6K 1K1.
  5. Arrange a showing of "Toys," a celebrated National Film Board of Canada production which pictures children as they watch an imaginary battle fought by war toys. (8 min.) Rental $30/16mm. only. McGraw Hill Training Systems, Box 641, Del Mar, CA 92014. 800/421-0833 (In California: 800/622-6222).

Family Activities

  1. Talk with family members about attitudes and feelings toward war toys and offer suggestions for alternative toys and games.
  2. Refuse to buy war toys for others and learn how to gracefully give them back when you receive them.
  3. Ask other children not to bring war toys into your home.
  4. Make up a television viewing schedule that eliminates violent shows or shows sponsored by war toy companies.
  5. Create "No War Toys Zones" in your home, church, school.
  6. Talk about what really happens in war. People are hurt and killed. Games, television shows and movies using guns seldom show the real effect of what violence does to people.
  7. Discuss the problems of war toys with all family members present. If the father or male caregiver is not present at the family discussion, the family receives an unspoken message that peace is a woman's role and war is a man's role.
  8. Learn to play games which are nonviolent active and fun. The New Games book series is an excellent resource. Contact Alternatives for resources.
  9. Spend time as a family in helping and caring for others in the community.
  10. Role play how children might respond when invited by friends to play war games.
  11. Draft a family letter to war toy manufacturers, cartoon producers and others who promote militarism to children and tell them why you oppose what they do.
  12. Encourage clergy, teachers and others in your community to address the topic of war toys and inform others of the adverse effects such toys may have on children.

(Family Activities are taken from the brochure, "Toys Are for Fun: Not Fighting, " produced by The Peace Resource Center, 4211 Grand Ave., Des Moines, Iowa 50312. 515/274-4851. )

Rachel Gill is a former editor of Alternatives.

Make copies of this resource under the Creative Commons attribution, not-for-profit license.

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