Waging War on Toys
Author: Julie Carlson
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 12/15/2003
Children like to see things shot up, blown up, dismembered, distempered and digested (mayhem being their genes’ fresher remembrance of things Paleolithic than any more recent babble-tattle on sharing, caring and hugging, perhaps?). So every Christmas, while peace on Earth streaks its seasonal sleigh ride across the sky–hopefully beyond the range of snipers and Stinger missiles and nasty neighbors–toy manufacturers in the stealth of the night unleash the latest arsenals of make-believe weaponry and their retailers circle the toy tanks and plead sainthood, because they’re only providing what the infallible marketplace demands.
Meanwhile grown-ups in charge of real armies go on their unchallenged ways, devouring a third of the federal budget to feed a superhero war machine more lethal than anything Gengis Khan could ever dream of, more disproportionate with existing dangers than any imbalance of power in history while, sadly, US taxpayers right and left barely bat an eye at that lunacy, as if a single laser-guided missile that costs more than a year’s worth of child care subsidies for an entire state were a perfectly reasonable way to project American values, but a $44.99 toy kit of a bombed out house will spell the end of American innocence. Conceivably the toy manufacturers have it right: they’re preparing the kids for the flag-waving world of their fathers. Their bombed out houses, their ATV-like ridable tanks, their “GI Joe Long Range Army Sniper” are character education at its best, because it is in line with the US national character. Military power is America’s defining identity.
“Good-old American know-how at insanity” as Hawkeye once described a Sherman tank in M*A*S*H.
Schools have tried emasculating childhood of its natural-born barbarism with speech codes, behavior codes and more self-esteem narcotics than the Drug Enforcement Agency could ever catalogue. But codes do nothing when grown-up examples don’t follow. So it is with violent toys. The problem isn’t the toys themselves, or even their popularity, but the empty sanctimony behind a campaign to discredit those toys while the toys’ inspiration – the Pentagon’s monstrous appetite for state-of-the-art killware, the White House’s warmongering junta of he-men – are worshipped as blindly cultish deities. They’re the real action figures, the real toys to worry about, because they’ve not outgrown the caveman mentality, they’re every child’s example, and they’re in charge.
Though militaristic values pervade most societies, they are particularly strong in the US where there is high acceptance of military means of conflict resolution and a heavy dependence of the economy on military production. These values invade the world of our children through television, toys, video games, films and some sports.
But, does exposure to and use of war toys, together with watching violent television shows promoting the toys and modeling their use, contribute to greater acceptance of militaristic values and therefore later political support of particular wars in adult life? Or are war toys and war play neutral and irrelevant to the moral and political socialization of children?
As parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, neighbors, and citizens at large interested not only in the moral development of children, but also their social and emotional development, we might inquire whether there are short term costs or benefits of war toys. Do they help children attain inner mastery of their fears and the violence in the world around them? Do they help children discharge spontaneous aggressive impulses? Or do they, by implicitly conveying acceptance of violent strategies of behavior, increase aggressiveness of children?
A number of controlled studies looking at the immediate or short term impact of war toys on aggressive and anti social elements in children’s play have been conducted. Children with and without war toys showed significant increases of aggressive and anti-social behavior in the presence of war toys. None showed no effect of war toys. The children evidently experienced the availability of toys associated with violence as stimuli to act out aggressive fantasies or permission to act on aggressive impulses. The effect is the opposite of the supposition that war play reduces aggression by catharsis, as the increased aggression can be seen to continue into a play setting subsequent to the war toy exposure.
A close examination of the issue raises concerns that war toys teach children that:
- war is a game, an exciting adventure.
- killing is acceptable, even fun.
- violence or the threat of violence is the only way to resolve conflicts.
- the world is divided into “goodies” and “baddies” where the bad guys are devoid of human qualities and their destruction is desirable
The story-line repetitively casts bad people (as aliens or robots) seeking power to control the world (or city or universe). The “good people” vanquish them with violence. The child learns that justice, reason and effective communication do not achieve success. The weapon is a tool of power over others and necessary to deal with “evil.”
- War toys are very likely to increase aggressive behavior in children, at least in the short term.
- Provision of or acceptance of war toys by adults socializing children is likely to interfere with inducing values and skills of nonviolent conflict resolution, empathy, compassion and a complex view of the equality and diversity of humankind and the worth of all living things.
International Legislation on War Toys
Sweden and Norway have successful voluntary restriction of the sale of war toys; Malta prohibits their import; Greece bans television advertising; Australia places some restrictions on imports. The European Parliament recommended that its member states ban advertising of war toys and reduce their sale.
Julie Carlson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org