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Violent toys - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Violent toys
I was just reading about a planned Code Pink protest against violent toys, or war-oriented toys. I know the spiel. I grew up on the spiel.

My mother was an anti-Vietnam protestor (so was my father, but he doesn't count as he pulled a vanishing act on us), and when I was a child in the '70s, she absolutely forbade me to have toy weapons. No squirt guns, no toy soldiers. The little plastic lightsaber on the Luke Skywalker 11.5" doll was apparently all right, but a toy blaster or even a child-sized toy lightsaber was out of the question.

So I used a wiffle bat. Or a handy stick. When I actually got violent, I used a baby doll that was dressed in a long sack sort of thing and could be swung with relative ease if my friend Jacques cheated at Chutes and Ladders. That, I rightly got in trouble for. Mom wisely refrained on the rest most of the time, apparently deciding that the secondary goal of not spending money on highly overpriced toys would have to do... though I was very strictly restricted to playing medical personnel only if my cousins or neighbors were playing war games. With the exception of Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and later, Indiana Jones, we didn't watch a lot of violent stuff. No A-Team, no boxing movies, not much in the way of sports. I guess M*A*S*H had its violent moments, but it was invariably condemned within the text. There were Superfriends cartoons, but I wasn't even a huge cartoon watcher. I know we watched The Six-Million Dollar Man and The Bionic woman (Jacques and I used to play it sometimes, going "Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch" as we ran in slow motion), but all I remember clearly was damage to property (bending fences and so on), running fast, and one super-sense apiece. No, our television decadence was of the soap opera variety--J.R. bedhopping around Texas, while Gary did the same around California. Any violence on those shows was a minor action in the service of greater sexual angst.

None of that stopped me from having lightsaber duels, or writing a story at the age of fourteen/fifteen with a barely controlled violent psycho Force user at the center, which involved a scene in which she telekinetically lit the villain on fire and he threw a knife at her and she nearly died from blood loss. Nor did it make me write stories about millionaire playboys and their bored wives and shoddy business ethics. For that matter, I've never become an ethically shady businesswoman or her trampy alcoholic sister. Writing my violent stories and reading them has also not made me a particularly violent person. I've never been in a fistfight and prefer to avoid them in real life. I do all of that vicariously.

And the lack of toys and other aggression stimuli didn't change that about me one iota. Maybe I was more into swordfights than gunfights because I saw Star Wars instead of First Blood, but fighting play itself? I did that long before I saw SW. My friends the twins (Rebecca and Michelle) used to come over when we couldn't have been much more than toddlers, and we'd spin stories about capture and rescue from an evil witch. The witch had to be fought. I suppose you could blame this on the fairy tales I couldn't be kept away from for love nor money at any part of my life, but that still brings us to why I couldn't live without fairy tales. I had my Berenstein Bears books and a book about a bear that played a violin as a cub until it got too small for him and eventually grew big enough to play the bass viol. I had a book about three little girls (personalized to be myself and the twins, as I recall) who had to solve puzzles to find their way around. I had the Black Stallion books and Nancy Drew. I liked them all just fine. But it was Dorothy vs. the Wicked Witch that I had to have read to me until I learned to read it for myself, and horror stories I gravitated to when I started choosing for myself.

And that's where the problem with the protest against violent toys is.

John Locke said many intelligent and important things, but the tabula rasa theory about how kids come into the world doesn't, in my experience, bear scrutiny. Kids are themselves. You have to deal with them for themselves. You can not buy them toy soldiers, but if your kid is into conflict play, she'll line up her Barbie dolls and make them into a skirmish line. It doesn't mean your child will grow up into a sadistic lunatic who revels in violence--that's what ethical teaching is for--or that the child despises your values. It just means she likes to tell herself that kind of story from time to time. Other stories will also happen at other times. It's all part of human nature, and you can't change human nature, no matter how much you dislike it.

(This isn't addressing the kid who's totally obsessed by violence; that's a different story altogether and that kid probably needs some help. But in most cases, it's just part of the normal variety of imaginational experience that kids have.)
38 comments or Leave a comment
slytherincesss From: slytherincesss Date: December 23rd, 2005 04:10 pm (UTC) (Link)

I think that there is a school of thought that doesn't accept there are inherent physiological, hormonal, and emotional differences between the sexes, which has, over the past thirty years or so, manifested in trying to "feminize" boys and men. I found it interesting that my son went through a phase where everything was a gun -- he once held out an empty bowl at me and made shooting noises -- but my daughter did not per se, and my kids are only thirteen months apart, so they are comparable developmentally.

In my opinion, a normal child will not be influenced to be violent toward others or themself by just one thing -- a video game, song lyrics, a certain movie. When children act out violently, there is so much going on with that child that likely didn't manifest from watching The Terminator or whatever. That said, I try and be careful about psychologically freaking my kids out or allowing them to view psychologically questionable material until it is age-appropriate.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 23rd, 2005 05:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
. When children act out violently, there is so much going on with that child that likely didn't manifest from watching The Terminator or whatever.

Right. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King talks about two teenagers who are arrested for lighting a woman on fire, which they saw on a movie-of-the-week. He says that he has no doubt they were inspired by the movie. If they hadn't seen it, they'd have probably killed her in a more mundane way. I'd never thought of it in particularly those terms before--yes, the images might well trigger ideas of how to do something, but if you're at a point where the images seem like acceptable steps, it's way beyond outside influence already.

I almost always played in mixed gender groups, and the girls did gun stuff as much as the boys (though I wasn't allowed to), so I don't know how much that's a gender thing. I don't think it really matters--you're dealing with individuals anyway, so trending isn't going to help in parenting situations. Whether it's a little boy who wants play with a toy soldier or a little girl, the child's mind isn't going to change by giving it a Barbie doll instead.
sophonax From: sophonax Date: December 23rd, 2005 04:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
You make an interesting distinction here between storytelling and real life. The question is, which of the two are the toys more likely to affect?

Your mother didn't get you violent toys, and you cite two apparently contradictory results of this: you enjoy reading and writing stories that have elements of violence and horror in them, and you're very nonviolent in real life. Which of these is the true "effect" of how you were raised? I don't think the Code Pink protestors are concerned that kids will grow up to be Stephen King or Buffy fans if they play with guns; they're concerned that they'll grow up to be violent people.

Obviously there are a lot more factors at work in whether that happens, which is why most of the time playing with violent toys will not turn a kid into a psycho killer. Still, I think that if I ever have kids, I'll probably severely limit their war games not for practical, personality-shaping reasons (as you point out, kids have a lot of stuff that's just part of their wiring and won't change no matter what) but just for ethical ones--not, "We don't do this because it will have x, y, and z negative consequences" but "We don't do this because it's wrong." And I think that treating war like a game is wrong. Violence as a whole is enormously complex, and I love fiction that expresses all of its facets, the heroic as well as the dark, but its main component is horror, and I do think that forgetting that is immoral in a very real way.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 23rd, 2005 05:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Toys are just part of storytelling, though--they're props kids use in the stories they're telling themselves, in which they sometimes star as soldiers, sometimes as doctors, sometimes as vampires... they do their thing. They pick up props to keep doing it. The kind of play that these are involved in is imaginative, narrative play, and is tied up intimately with storytelling--there really isn't a distinction. There's no significant difference between being a Buffy fan and playing at staking nasty vampiric raspberry bushes in the back yard... except that the latter uses a violent toy (a stake).

The place they should be looking at isn't the child's toybox. It's the child's pet, or the child's siblings. Is the child beating up on a pet? Waving weapons in earnest at his siblings? If violent imaginational play is the only thing the child plays at, I think there's probably some cause for concern. But if you ban them from playing war as soldiers, they'll play it as Ewoks or they'll play Harry Potter or they'll pretend to be knights... it all comes back to the same faculty of imagination.
sreya From: sreya Date: December 23rd, 2005 05:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
Interesting topic. I'm trying to remember exactly what our toy rules were - I know we weren't allowed water guns, but I'm pretty sure I remember a couple of toy guns around, so I think it came down to no projectile gun toys, the ones that actually, after a fashion, worked. And we definitely had toy swords and the like.

My parents were careful about what we were exposed to as children, but being as my father was in the military, it was impossible to keep us away from the ideas of war and fighting altogether. So there were certain lines, like no Ninja Turtles, but my brother and I absolutely lived and breathed He-Man and She-Ra for years. (And I do have to say, the no Ninja Turtles show rule didn't stop my brother from playing it at his friends' homes)

Really, I think it's the parents' responsibility to monitor their children's play and make sure nothing's out of place. Are the kids play-fighting because they're defeating the evil villain (and the person playing the villian only does so because a villain needs to be there to be defeated) or are the kids becoming too obsessed with being the villains? Is the playtime varied enough, or does one particular aspect dominate that should be worrisome? If something is amiss, then the parent needs to correct it and maybe ban something for a while - we had a lot of that with my brother. Something that was perfectly fine for me was troublesome when he got around to it. (And this was beyond simply violence - language and other factors were considered, too.)

As usual, it feels like some of the driving force behind such a toy boycott might be parental abdication.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 23rd, 2005 05:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
As usual, it feels like some of the driving force behind such a toy boycott might be parental abdication.

Sort of, but also the fear of even letting other people's children do things--lack of trust in parenting, I guess.

It's good to point out the issue of the child who always wants to be the villain. Another trouble sign would be a kid who wants to be a hero, but always sets up other (usually innocent) kids to be the villains who will be unmercifully attacked. Parents are in a much better position to see this than unrelated protestors at the mall.

There are things that you should put your foot down on, partly for moral reasons and partly for protective reasons. A couple of the boys in here for some reason were going around Sieg Heiling--that's offensive, and it's also likely to get them beaten up if they don't fully comprehend what they're doing. Some play really does hurt people not involved in it. But most isn't really doing any harm to anyone, involved or uninvolved.
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 23rd, 2005 05:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I write the crazy out of me and get it out of my system with shoot-em-up movies. Meanwhile, though I've never enjoyed reading romances, I probably am more of a hopeless romantic than most of the people who read them constantly!

It all goes back to the "It's Not Real!" rant--people are too utterly freaked out about fantasies and imaginational play, and mistake imaginational belief--that suspension of disbelief that allows for inner storytelling--for true psychotic delusion.
darreldoomvomit From: darreldoomvomit Date: December 23rd, 2005 06:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
I had too many toy guns to count as a kid, mostly cap guns. But I recall only likeing them because of the noise. When my brother invented funner ways of setting off the caps, we went for them. My friends and I have talked about this issue, and as far as I can see, the people who oppose it are girls who had no brothers or male friends. Who never really played with guns, and only have gotten this hype over how they breed violence. They are fine with swords, and even bows and arrows, because of fantasy, but not guns. I think it is kind of hypocritical and stupid. I am not a violent person, and i know my brother had a fake machine gun that made noise and lit up (that one was confiscated, on account of they were barely legal at the time.) I don't really have any desire to shoot someone with a machine gun. I still like loud noises, but that mostly just comes with havinga very large extended family who are all very loud.
story645 From: story645 Date: December 23rd, 2005 06:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Wordy, plus is one of those things that I wanna study/

*shrugs* we had all of it in my house, and were exposed to all of it, and my bro broke off the legs of my barbie, built war machines out of legos and jijacked my toy kitchen knife. We were both sort of violent, but so were our parents.

Yeah, the whole parent influence is usually forgotten, but according to most of the studies I've seen, that's gonna affect kids a lot more than the toys or media that they are exposed to, cause you've got nurture and nature in one shot, and all the toys/lack of toys in the world isn't gonna change that.
ratcreature From: ratcreature Date: December 23rd, 2005 06:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hmm, I think it's a lot more complicated than "cause and effect" where violent toys cause or increase violent behavior, and I find it mostly silly to try to forbid them. That said, I find some war games just distasteful for more complicated political reasons than just violence. Like for example recently I've seen lots of ads for a computer game where you apparently conquer/explore the "New World" and well, I find the whole premise of the play that seems fully from the perspective of the colonialists where you "win" if you manage to build a successful empire awful, because basically it seems sort of like "let's play genocide" without really reflecting that reality. I find that more problematic than even war strategy games as such, like I played Risk and Stratego as a kid, but those where somewhat abstract and at least didn't mangle real history.

My parents had no problem with violent toys, that is I had toy swords and shields to play knight, toy guns in which you could even put these things that produce bangs, lots of water guns, some toy soldiers (though not that many), pirate ships with toy cannons for sea battles..., they let me play moderately violent games too, and the aforementioned war strategy games, and I still turned out a non-violent person in all my actions, but then I think women from middle class families rarely turn out to be violent no matter what their toys are.

I guess I might be violent if I had impulse control problems and the physical abilities to inflict it, since I always had violent fantasies *points to icon ;)* (though I never felt especially guilty for that, as long as I never harm anyone). I mean, the most extreme of these thoughts are if someone really, really angers me, I imagine in detail how they would look like if they lay on the floor and I kicked them until they bled, but that happened only a couple of times, and it allowed me to remain outwardly even tempered which is much more effective. I have no idea how many other people imagine how good it would feel to kick someones teeth in, but I imagine it's quite a few more than those who actually act on that impulse. Otherwise I enjoy fictional violence if it is well choreographed, like I like fight and battle scenes even if there is blood and gore, and I do enjoy violence and torture in fiction. But I see that as quite separate from actually being violent, or a preference for violent solutions on a political level.

It's not that I'm not in favor to change the violent aspects of culture, but I doubt that changing toys and hoping it'll affect the next generation of adults makes about as much sense as hoping sexism will go away if you don't allow your kid to play with Barbies (the reverse might be true, i.e. if there was no sexism anymore, there probably wouldn't be dolls looking like Barbie). It's not that I'm denying that there's all kinds of psychological stuff somewhere in the murky subconscious involved in ideologies that perpetuate violence, racism or sexism and such, but in general I find it frustrating how so many hope to solve political problems by somehow psychoanalyzing them to death, when a much more straightforward way to deal with them is to affect the conscious choices people make.
ratcreature From: ratcreature Date: December 23rd, 2005 06:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
Argh. I omitted some words, that was supposed to be:

[...] they let me play moderately violent video and roleplaying games too [...]
From: finmagik Date: December 23rd, 2005 06:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
Very true, I've alwasy been horribly morbid and my parents don't understand why.
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 23rd, 2005 07:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think it's more directly traceable to the tabula rasa idea--the idea that children are born with absolutely no inborn tendencies and everything that comes into their lives is something that adults put there. Now, I think Locke would be horrified at the use to which it's put, but I remember the only time we studied Locke in high school, what we were supposed to do was list one proper teaching from each philosopher of the Enlightenment. The "correct" answer for Locke was "tabula rasa," which had been defined as "Children only know what you teach them."
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 23rd, 2005 07:18 pm (UTC) (Link)

tabula rasa

The tabula rasa, is in fact, bull. As is the behaviorist psychologists idea of practically the same thing -- that you can condition anyone to be anything and inherent capabilities are non-existent. The fact is, despite what many psychologists still argue about, most of our makeup -- personality, intelligence, violence, etc, is a mix of nature AND nurture. Social situations such as parental violence or neglect can exacerbate an already existing tendency (like violence for example) but as current theories stand, we are all inherently born with a certain "amount" of certain things -- personality, talents, temper, intelligence, etc, and those can be enhanced or weakened by the life we're thrown into.

Hey, maybe in 20 years there will be a completely different theory. But as of right now, that's the theory, and it makes sense to me. Especially when I struggle to do basic pencil drawings after 2 semesters of art class and friends of mine can doodle effortlessly with no formal training at all.

Anyway, you don't know me and I don't know you, so I'm just a psych grad student passing by who saw the tabula rasa comment and got incredibly, nerdily, excited.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 23rd, 2005 07:26 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: tabula rasa

I think behaviorism has some limited application in situations like OCD--some operant conditioning, a bit of desensitizing for phobias. That's like putting a cast on a broken bone. Perfectly logical. But a cast can't make your bones longer or shorter.

I had an almost-minor in psych as an undergrad, but I found myself too horrified by Freud's obsession with sex and (weirdly) Piaget's refusal to name his cat.

I think the only benefit of tabula rasa thinking is that maybe it makes parents think twice before doing something stupid in front of their kids, but then again, it may well encourage them to do so, if they think the child is programmable. There are a lot of things in the world that I think of as free will choices where naturists disagree with me--too much of nature-based thinking denies free will--but on the whole, it's just intuitively obvious that people are just different. If everything came from nurture, siblings would be exactly alike! But we see that different people respond differently to the same stimulus, which suggests pretty strongly that psychology is not built on automatic stimulus-response triggers.
From: mrs_muggle Date: December 23rd, 2005 08:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
I love the story about the little boy brought up on a farm who wanted a toy axe so that he could play at cutting up firewood like Daddy. The local toyshops were all horrified - they didn't stock such violent toys.

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 23rd, 2005 08:58 pm (UTC) (Link)

Maybe Daddy could spare some firewood and make a little toy ax with a nicely sanded edge that wouldn't cut.
From: myxginxblossoms Date: December 23rd, 2005 08:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is something I can't totally relate to, since I was never interested in conflict play. When I was little, my favourite game was that my sisters and I were fairies-in-training, and we were studying for the tests that would move us up in rank.

I never even thought of playing violent games; all of them I played were centered around school or home. For example, I had a huge collection of Hot Wheels, and they went to school to become grown-up cars, at which point they were allowed to roll down the slide on our swingset in the backyard. My Beanie Babies were artists who lived in "apartments" under the coffee table and generally helped each other out, and my Barbies ran an orphanage for all the little Kelly dolls lying around. No swordfights, no guns, no dueling to the death.

But because my experiences as a child are so utterly different, I can see where you're coming from. It's pretty clear that you and I both came into the world with different internal wiring, if you compare the games we played. I watched scary children's movies, including one in which a cat sang about dying while laying on a grave, I read Roald Dahl books, and I watched Power Rangers--but my Power Ranger toys still fell in love and went to school and never, ever fought evil in our house. It's just the way I was (and am).

The main point of this is just a big "word" to the idea that kids are kids, and that's okay. It reminds me of the son of a friend of mine, who had to give a demonstration speech when he was eleven. He decided to explain to the class how to kill a chicken and prepare it to be cooked because, as a farm kid, it's a part of his life that he wanted to share with his peers. In general, said kid isn't the greatest of students, but he was really excited for this speech, because he knew he had a topic his classmates would listen to--most kids in the area don't live on farms. The teacher found it utterly disturbing and his mother was called in to talk about the boy's mental and emotional health. Everyone (save his mother) completely overreacted to the fact that he mentioned killing a chicken, ignoring the fact that doing so isn't something he does for "fun"--it's something he does so they have Christmas dinner.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 23rd, 2005 08:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
That just stinks! (The chicken story, I mean; your Mighty Morphin Power Rangers can do what they like ;)). I mean, that's a fascinating subject, especially for kids who have no clue about farm life, which is the vast majority of kids who live in the city or even bigger towns. They're depriving the other kids of learning something pretty neat that they wouldn't have a chance to know otherwise as well as shooting down a kid for a project that excited him!
caitie From: caitie Date: December 24th, 2005 06:26 am (UTC) (Link)
It's funny, because I have relatively liberal parents who sheltered me and my three sisters the best they could, but the idea of not having lightsabers and water guns and nerf shooters is sort of incomprehensible to me. That never concerned my parents; what did concern them was sheltering us from gore and gratuitous violence in the media and in entertainment. For instance, a game like Grand Theft Auto would never have been allowed in my mother's house, and those types of games will certainly never be a part of mine. You make a good case about toys like guns and lightsabers being part of a story-telling process, but media toys like GTA and other violent games concern me much more.
lazypadawan From: lazypadawan Date: December 24th, 2005 06:28 am (UTC) (Link)
Every year some peacenik group or other tries to protest so-called violent toys around Christmastime. Now I never see those folks making sure some boneheaded parent isn't buying the vile Grand Theft Auto game for little Brandon. What they are doing is discouraging people from buying toys that are otherwise child-safe but endorse two things the peaceniks are really opposed to:

1. the military

2. guns

Back in the '60s, the left pushed the idea that American soldiers were a bunch of bloodthirsty maniacs killing helpless foreign peasants and this was because those soldiers grew up playing cowboys and Indians or cops-and-robbers, watched John Wayne movies, and read war comics. The feminists pushed the idea boys' aggressiveness was some sort of disorder that needed to be "corrected." So to feminize boys and to ensure future generations of children reject the military as well as gun ownership, the peace groups try to pry kids from playing with GI Joe or toy guns.
bethan_b_bad From: bethan_b_bad Date: December 28th, 2005 09:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
I was a very girly little girl; I had Barbies and Polly Pockets and My Little Pony. But on the play-yard, I played girls-catch-boys and at being suerheroes. I think I might have been SuperGirl- or Catwoman. And despite my Disney fixation (ongoing to this day), I know I played 'let's-beat-up-the-baddies-and-save-the-nice-people' in my head almost constantly. My pink Polly Pocket locket with its big jewel on the front was where my magic came from, and I tried to karate-kick and pretended my favourite Disney characters were helping. I'd seen an advert for Disneyland where Mickey, Goofy and Donald rode on stars, you see, so I flew on stars too and we lived on a big airship-type-thing that looked just like a cloud, and we saved my favourite Chalet School characters. And I had a massive interest in WWII, so the Chalet School at war books were my favourites, and aged nine or ten I did my class talk on the war. And I'm more-or-less normal. I think. ^_^
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