Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Concerning Violent Toys and Violent Play

Earlier today I got a comment from The Not Quite Crunchy Parent that read, in part: to get some male input on a post I have up today on European war toys - your DS isn't quite old enough yet but the day will come...
So I decided to go over to her site and take a look. The post she's referring to is here. Basically, the post mentions an interesting parental phenomenon: European toymakers (including Lego and Playmobil) tend not to produce as many militaristic toys as do those toymakers that primarily serve the US market. And what militaristic toys do show up in European stores, tend to consist primarily of ancient and medieval weaponry, as opposed to modern tanks, guns, fighter jets, and so forth. Apparently there isn't nearly the demand in Europe for toys based on modern weapons than there is in the US.

And an interesting conversation started up in the comments (which, as of this writing, were written entirely by moms): why is it that boys go for these things anyway? Is it a question of honor and chivalry, or is it more about power? Is ancient weaponry more "manly" than modern weaponry, and do toys based on the former spur the imagination better?

Thus, the desire for some male input, and the comment posted to my blog. Hey, you're a guy--could you explain this guy thing to me? I'm honored, but I feel a little like a lab specimen. ;)

First, do I let my daughters play with military toys? Just so everyone is clear:

And no, I don't let the Happy boy play with these things. We're rather proud of the fact we made them ourselves, and he'd eat them. Maybe when he gets a little older....

Also, check out this post and this post. These aren't so much about toys for the little ones: they're more about toys for us big ones. But you know if I could interest my girls in siege engines and chainmail, I'd be a happy guy. (And most likely, so would their future boyfriends and husbands. Hmmm... Maybe I need to get some guns too.)


Now that I've established my man card, on to the more serious points.

A few months back I wrote a post entitled On the Seriousness of Children's Literature, in which I mused about how the stories that parents used to read to their kids were full of really horrible stuff--witches sticking boys and girls in their ovens; trolls, ogres, dragons, ghosts, goblins; people getting their heads chopped off; that sort of thing. (Take a look at any of the Brothers Grimm stuff--original versions--to see what I mean.) My thought was that perhaps these stories were not macabre merely because of some dark obsession on the part of the authors, but because these stories played an important social role: they helped children find their way in the world, by illustrating to them the virtues they would need to survive--and by pointing out what can go wrong when these virtues are not possessed. The purpose in any particular culture of its indigenous fairy stories, legends, and epic poems, is to prepare people for the world they are going to inhabit--and until recent times, that world had some really unpleasant stuff going on (wars, famine, disease, crushing poverty).

I got a commenter to that post who linked to an interview on entitled A Game Called Suicide. This interview took the same tack, with children's play. It's pretty well recognized that play is a major way that children learn how the world works. Through running, climbing, and jumping, little bodies become stronger, they learn better balance, they become more dexterous, and they learn their limits (can I jump that far?). And this is not just true with physical play; imaginative play develops the mind and the social skills in much the same way. When you see kids playing kitchen, preparing imaginary food and serving it on imaginary plates to their siblings (and to their imaginary friends), they are actually learning, not merely goofing off.

And I happen to believe that this behavior is hard-wired into children. Their brains are designed to figure out where they belong in society, and to start practicing the skills necessary to survive and thrive in their intended roles. For example, my daughters are at the age where they often want to be in the kitchen, "helping" with the preparation of dinner. Of course, usually it's not exactly help--it would be quicker for us just to banish the kids to a different room and do the work ourselves. But it's good for the kids to be in there, carrying out what tasks they are capable of, and being shown how to do the tasks they're not quite capable of yet. Often they will observe things they don't understand, but then go into their rooms and "prepare" some "food" on their own. (Some of the recipes they come up with are quite a hoot, although not particularly appetizing to the adult imagination.)

The Salon article basically made the point that violent play--usually done by boys, but not always--falls along these lines. Like it or not, men have been the warriors in society in the vast majority of circumstances throughout history. And this doesn't only come out in the form of war; men have often been called upon to provide for and protect their families. And men today still have to compete for mates, compete for jobs, compete in lots of ways.

(I realize that, according to the feminist ideal, women are every bit as capable as doing this as men are. And I'm certainly not going to deny that there are some very tough women out there who are more than capable of holding their own. However, there is a social expectation on men in this regard that isn't necessarily applied to women. A woman may choose to reject the traditional women's roles and compete in the marketplace, and be honored for that decision; but men are expected to compete in the marketplace, and often lose the respect of their peers if they don't. But all this is getting off topic.)

I believe that playing war, and playfighting (cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians) is valuable, in precisely the same way that any form of play is valuable. It helps the kids gain an understanding of their place in the world; it helps kids act out (and thereby understand) the concepts of courage and cowardice; it helps kids learn strategy and situational awareness; it helps kids learn limits; it helps kids learn magnanimity. Many women have remarked upon the seemingly strange phenomenon of boys who fight like dogs one minute, but are best of friends the next; I think it's entirely possible that this comes about because the boys, through their violent play, have learned something of control and magnanimity and limits.

One other point, also raised by the Salon article: kids below a certain age tend not to do abstract verbal reasoning very well. This is the reason that Classical Homeschooling doesn't start the Logic phase before about age 10. If something traumatic happens in the world or in one's life--say, the September 11 attacks or a school shooting--we adults can talk about it and commiserate: What do you think of that? How could this happen? What do you think we should do about it? Now these events affect the young ones every bit as much as they do adults, but the young ones aren't yet mature enough to internalize and understand them through conversational methods, which require such abstract verbal reasoning. Instead, it is absolutely natural for the young ones to play-act. That is simply how they learn and understand.


So given that I'm not opposed to some level of violent play-acting, and that I feel it can be useful as an educational tool in the right circumstances, what do I think of militaristic toys?

Well, first thing--I think toy manufacturers are the spawn of the Devil, for the most part. ;)

(Aside from Legos, which are just cool.)

Of course, this opinion may be colored by the fact that we just got through another Christmas/Birthday season in our household, and we now have several dozen more blinking, flashing, beeping objects that we have to find places for (and hope that our kids won't play with today, please pretty please?).

And I do tend to think that the more a child engages his or her imagination, the better. Yes, a kid can play cowboys and Indians with a real-looking Colt .45 toy, but if one of those is lacking, it's entirely possible to substitute something made of Legos, or even a half-naked Barbie. Boys who want to play these games will not be discouraged by a lack of period replicas.

There may be times when having really accurate toys is called for. I remember putting together plastic models of airplanes when I was a kid, and the accuracy of the model was actually a good thing: I could ask my Dad (who was an Air Force officer) what this little bump was, and he might tell me that it was an antenna blister or a landing light or something. But I was a bit older by this point; and what interest I had in accuracy could have been seen by that point as an educational opportunity. For the younger kids, I can't see my wife and I fussing about getting the latest and greatest GI Joe for the sake of it.

And my wife and I loathe most licensed characters and toy lines. (We're not even really that enthused about Sesame Street.) I can't see us indulging a boy's desire to get into, say, The Transformers! Collect All Fifty-Two! No.

But if our son eventually becomes interested in ballistics, and decides one day to start making the projects in this book (or better yet, this one), I am so there.


As for the last question they asked: is there something more appealing, more manly, about the ancient warfare than there is about the modern sort? I personally think there is. I note that the honor guards of our modern military forces still use sabers. And I notice the affection that attends Old Ironsides, the USS Constitution. There's just something more romantic about them; in comparison, modern weaponry seems soulless. And the kind of warfare in which one side dies without ever seeing the foe, where the other side wins without ever having to match strength against strength, lacks much of the romance of the warfare of earlier ages. A one-on-one challenge between champions has romance to it; modern warfare tries to avoid the one-on-one challenge as much as possible.

Important note: I say none of this to denigrate the work that our current men and women in uniform are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have nothing but awe and respect for the work they are doing over there, and I wish them nothing but speedy success against their enemies and a triumphant return home.

But even though modern warfare lacks the romance, and--indeed--is quite horrible, I still don't have a problem with kids pretending to be fighter pilots or tank drivers or ground-pounders. I think all of the previous arguments made above still apply; the kids who play this way are at some level trying to understand the way war works, so they won't be completely unprepared emotionally if and when it becomes their turn to defend their homeland.


So when the Happy Boy gets a little older, and starts running around the playground with all the other boys who are playing Monster, I'll not stop him. I'll make sure he knows when to back off, and try to keep him from bowling over the younger kids; and I'll darn well do my best to make sure he recognizes a chivalrous responsibility to defend the small and weak from whichever boy is the roaring beast of the moment. And I'll even let him do his defense with whatever "weapon" comes to hand and to mind, so long as he uses it honorably (no shooting in the back; no attacking an unarmed opponent, save the women and children, etc).

And if anyone takes offense, well... that'll be their problem.


The Not Quite Crunchy Parent said...

Thanks Tim,

This was a great discussion of a lot of things- including boys and war play. Your point about the tales people used to tell their children and that we now tell in the Disney version (here in the States, anyway)is interesting and echoed by the Waldorf school philosophy which scares the daylights out of parents when they insist on reading Grimms Brothers tales in the original version to the preschoolers.

SmallWorld said...

Thought you might enjoy this:

See what you have to look forward to?

mom go green said...

I appreciate your insight to the various aspects of such a seemingly complex issue. I have 2 boys and am trying to figure out how to "let them be boys." Luckily, I've dodged the issue so far since neither seems too interested in guns or weapons. If they do eventually, I'll let them make their own imaginary version.

Timothy Power said...

Smallworld: I'm not entirely sure what the fire kite is, but it sure looks like fun. I've been tempted to pick up that book for some time now, as well as some of the others by the same author (especially the one about the catapults).

Mom Go Green: I do think that letting them build, design or imagine their own toys, instead of buying them, is nearly always a wiser course. And there's something particularly satisfying about designing a working device that can launch a projectile for some distance. I remember from my high school days, one of us idiots discovered that you could take the cardboard container from a large order of McDonald's fries, poke the bottom down, stick a small spitwad in the bottom, squeeze the sides together... and the bottom would quickly snap back into place and launch the spitwad halfway across the room. We thought we were the bomb. Be forewarned, there's a good chance this will happen to your sons too.


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