Michael K. Meyerhoff, EdD
Many modern parents have made the seemingly admirable decision to forbid their little ones from playing with war toys. No pretend guns, tanks, soldiers, etc. are permitted in the house lest their children glorify aggressive activities. Nor do these parents want their children to become desensitized to violence. They feel that banning such toys is a small but important first step toward producing a peace-loving generation and helping to make the world a better place.
While I respect these parents' sentiments, I am amused by the futility of their efforts. By making such toys "forbidden fruit," they greatly increase their attractiveness. The kids become desperate to play with them and often have little trouble finding the prohibited items at friends' homes whose mothers and fathers are less socially conscious.
More importantly, the parents do not realize that the play of young children is based maybe 10% on materials and probably 90% on imagination. A four-year-old boy whose mother and father have steadfastly refused to provide him with a toy gun will finish eating his Popsicle, menacingly point the stick at someone, then gleefully shout, "Bang! You're dead!"
Again, I deeply respect the sentiments behind banning war toys. But I have to point out that this policy is not only futile, but also somewhat misguided. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to suggest that playing with such toys inevitably leads to aggressive and violent behavior in adulthood. While I am sure that the overwhelming majority of criminals played with such toys during their early years, I would bet that the overwhelming majority of decent, law-abiding citizens did as well. And while I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of war-mongering national leaders played with such toys during their early years, I am equally confident that the overwhelming majority of Nobel Peace Prize winners did too.
So clearly it is not playthings that make the difference, and focusing on playthings may distract parents from far more critical factors such as providing good role models, teaching love and respect for fellow human beings, etc. Moreover, focusing on playthings actually misses the point. If parents observe their children carefully, they will see that the fascination with war toys is not about aggression and violence, it is simply about power.
Young children are small and weak. People who are bigger and stronger completely and constantly control them. It is only within their imaginations that they become capable of taking charge and exerting their will. And war toys give them the opportunity to act out their fantasies. As they used to say in the Old West, "God didn't make everybody equal, the Colt .45 revolver did."
Now a word of caution: Obviously, young children sometimes have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality. They will be enamored with a real gun as much as they are with a toy gun, and they will not understand the difference. Therefore common sense must be exercised and great care must be taken if there are actual firearms around. Every year, hundreds of children are killed or seriously injured in firearm accidents. And in every case I have ever seen, the problem was that some adult got sloppy about locking up the firearm and making sure that their little one did not have access to it.
I also can supply a suggestion. If you are totally unwilling to allow your little one to play with war toys, at least recognize their appeal and find a suitable substitute. For example, if you just cannot accept G.I Joe in your child's toy chest, then provide him with a set of action figures and equipment that have a "rescue" theme. He can pursue his "power" fantasies by being someone who swoops into a fire, earthquake, flood, or other such danger zone and heroically evacuates and tends to the people who are trapped and injured.
It should be noted that the discussion thus far has been largely relevant to children in the preschool and early elementary years age range. As kids move into the later elementary and teen years, the fascination with war toys and the yearning to exercise power through imaginative play activities typically subsides. However, it is often replaced by a preoccupation with television shows, movies, and video games that feature highly aggressive and violent themes.
Once again, many parents are alarmed or at least concerned about this and seek to deny their kids access. And once again, while I respect their sentiments, I have to say that their actions are mostly misguided. Of course, it is always wise to limit a child's time spent sitting in front of a video screen for a host of good reasons. But the argument that engaging in this sort of entertainment inevitably encourages aggression and promotes violent behavior is of dubious merit.
In 2003 a teenager who had played the video game "Grand Theft Auto" over time for hundreds of hours played it for 36 hours straight before proceeding to imitate the characters in the game by stealing a car then, when brought in for questioning, killing two police officers and a 911 dispatcher. Even though this youth was claimed to have explained upon his capture, "Life is like a video game. Everybody's got to die sometime," the public outcry over the incident and the subsequent efforts to ban the game were uncalled for. First of all, any kid who plays any video game for 36 hours straight has personal and parental supervision problems that are serious and likely to lead to anti-social and even sociopathic behavior. Moreover, "Grand Theft Auto" is one of the most popular video games in history, and 99.99% of the kids who have played it have not given any indication that they will grow up into anything other than peaceful, responsible, law-abiding adults. This teenager — and this tragic incident — were anomalies, not the norm.
In fact, Sigmund Freud himself probably would have loved video games like "Grand Theft Auto." He pointed out that all of us have violent, aggressive drives building up within us all the time. And he noted that expressing those drives through fantasy is not only enjoyable, but also it is actually beneficial and healthy as it serves as a "catharsis" or release of negative emotion. Just like the safety valve on a steam engine keeps the internal pressure under control and prevents an explosion, aggressive and violent entertainment enables us to alleviate various inclinations that might otherwise build up to intolerable levels and eventually lead us into undesirable behavior.
I'm not a huge fan of Freud, but I have to agree with him on this one. I have witnessed countless teenagers volunteer to serve meals at a homeless shelter, spend time with lonely invalids at a nursing home, campaign for an anti-war political candidate, tutor under-privileged school children, etc. go home after engaging in these activities and then spend an hour or two playing the most hideously violent video games. I wish that they got their catharsis through active sports such as football and bowling instead of these more sedentary pursuits, but I don't believe an hour or two of their video game playing makes them any less caring or more violent.
So I urge parents to relax on the issue of aggressive, violent toys and games, but to remain vigilant on the issue of raising peaceful, law-abiding citizens. Entertainment is not education, and problem behavior is rarely the result of the former in any kind being present and almost invariably the result of the latter being inadequate or absent.
Michael K. Meyerhoff, EdD, is executive director of The Epicenter Inc., "The Education for Parenthood Information Center," a family advisory and advocacy agency located in Lindenhurst, Illinois. He may be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com.
Articles on the Same Topic
Choosing Toys for Babies
Enjoyed this article?
Want to help us continue to provide you with the best in children's health information?
Then make a donation to Pediatrics for Parents.
It's easy - just click on a button and donate via PayPal.
Copyright © 2000-2012 by Pediatrics for Parents, Inc.
May not be reproduced in any format without written permission.