"I think Derek thinks the turtles are real," Rholan Wong admitted. "We'll be driving down the street, and he'll see a manhole cover and want to go down (into the sewer) with the Turtles." Added Bob Clark, another parent of a 3-year-old Turtle fan: "Sean does the same thing."
"At 3," Lieberman said, "some kids are still struggling with (the separation of) fantasy and reality. These turtles are interacting with live people. How are kids supposed to understand the (difference between the) costumed and the real people? In the movie, they have adults going down into the manhole. How is a 3-year-old supposed to know this is a joke?"
Teigiser doesn't see a problem. "The Turtles are very tongue-in-cheek," she said. "They spoof the super heroes. They fight for truth, justice and a larger slice of pizza. There's a strong element of humor that appeals to kids. They pick up on it immediately."
To stem possible confusion and to quell aggression, perhaps a policy of moderation is best, suggested Irene Goldenberg, a UCLA family psychologist.
"Certainly, I think a child should not play with any single toy constantly," she said. "It's not creative. But as long as kids are playing with Turtles in an interactive way along with other kids, I don't think they are much different than the toy soldiers of a different age. Every toy seems to be offensive to some group. The Barbie doll, for instance, is offensive to some feminists."
Goldenberg's suggestion seems to be working at the Teddy Bear Preschool in Burbank, where children occasionally are allowed to play with Turtles. "We considered a Ninja Turtle ban," said Nan Orlandi, the school's director. "We did notice our kids' behavior getting more aggressive (after Turtles became popular). They were trying to kick and hit."
After much discussion with parents and children, Orlandi struck a compromise: "Children can only bring Ninja toys on 'share' days, two days a week. We tell them to keep the Ninja weapons at home. And we don't allow Ninja Turtle movies. Some parents said they don't want their kids to see them."
A policy of moderation is also in effect at the YWCA in Glendale, said Mallory Fessler, director of child care for the 100 summer camp children and 18 preschoolers there. Kids are not prohibited from wearing Turtle gear, but neither are they encouraged to take part in Turtle play. "We usually discourage them from playing Ninja Turtles," Fessler said. "There's no creativity."
Rationing Turtle play makes sense to Judy Hall, an Anaheim marriage and family therapist. "Parents have to take responsibility for providing balanced input," she said. "Kids need a variety of toys. Be alert for the impact of toys on behavior."
What's appealing about the Turtles, she said, is the element of rebellion, the fantasy and all the action. And toddlers tend to look up to the Turtles, some parents observe, simply because they are teen-agers.
On the plus side, some parents say there are educational benefits to Turtle play. Each Turtle wears a different color face mask, and some children learn colors from Turtle-watching, parents say.
Personal hygiene, often not a priority for toddlers, can improve, Rholan Wong found. "Derek never wanted to take a shower until he saw Raphael taking one," he said. "Now if we could only find a photo of a Turtle brushing his teeth."