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Boys and Their Toys : So you think war toys are bad? Well, tell that to the mother of a 4-year-old Ninja Turtle who longs to fight the bad guys.

July 05, 1994|NINA J. EASTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I was nursing our new baby the other day when guilt--the amphetamine of the working-mom set--prodded me to turn to my attention-starved 4-year-old son with an offer. "Tell ya what, hon," I said, my voice a little too eager, "when the baby is finished eating, we'll read a book. OK?"

"Nah," Taylor responded with that boyish shrug, the swaggering shuffle passed on like a bad suit from one generation of preschool boys to the next. "I have a better idea. . . . Let's fight bad guys !"

Bad Guys. They entered our lives about a year ago, and I'd venture a calculation that they'll be with us in one form or another for close to another decade--as will the guns, grenades, swords and rocket launchers needed to defend against their onslaught.

For many mothers of small boys, this obsession with war toys is one of the most unnerving phases of childhood life. Sure, there are plenty of calm, nurturing little guys around (and some not-so-calm, not-so-nurturing girls). But to those of us who bore fiery balls of testosterone, like my own first son, the task of shaping them into civilized human beings can seem a daunting one.

You don't have to be part of the peacenik crowd that gets its politics from "Mother Jones" to get the chills watching your son and his friends toting water guns that resemble Uzis. Today, guns are in school bags, jean jackets and first cars. They're aimed at teachers and friends and rivals (who, after all, are real-world versions of Bad Guys). In some communities they've become as integral to youth culture as rap and rock.

My husband, who gets his kicks out of scanning Census Bureau tracts, likes to remind me how unlikely it is that an advantaged suburban kid is going to pull out an assault rifle and start firing into a McDonald's. Maybe he's got a point. But he even gets a little squeamish when his offspring starts blasting away at the cat.

I've witnessed a range of parental reactions, from those who permit their 3-year-olds to watch "The Terminator" to those who won't allow anything more pointed than a stick near the house. There's even the thirdhand tale, probably a suburban myth, about the boy who became obsessed with firearms in his teens because his parents had denied him toy guns.

Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, imposing controls but not wanting to act too totalitarian or even too interested (wouldn't that, after all, make guns seem even more interesting?). We draw lines in the sand, only to watch them disappear when friends give toy guns as presents, or our sons come home from school play-acting Ninja Turtle sword fights--even if they've never seen the cartoon.

Two educators, Diane E. Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, managed to write an entire book of advice on this puzzling issue. In "Who's Calling the Shots?" (New Society Publishers, 1990) the authors argue that it's normal and healthy for children to play imaginative war games. It's one way in which children work out feelings of anger and helplessness, and draw their own distinctions between good and evil. The trouble with today's war play, Carlsson-Paige and Levin say, is that it mimics the scripted, and often more gruesome or realistic, violence that children see in the media.

According to the authors, teachers report that today's children seem more obsessed with war play than in the past, and that it often spills into playground violence. Although some girls put aside their Barbies for Power Rangers, parents and teachers worry most about how re-enactments of violence dominate the play of boys.

Boys act out more violence today because cartoons and toy marketers over the past decade have promoted rigid gender stereotypes, Levin said in an interview. "Boys are shown over and over again that what you do is be violent," she said. "The most extreme possibilities for each gender is being emphasized."

Kathleen Kostelny, a research associate at Chicago's Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Early Childhood Development, also distinguishes between imaginative war play and realistic enactments. "Even if teachers take a toy gun away, kids are going to use a banana or finger or whatever," she said. "They have to play it out. This is a symbol of being in power and being in control. The important distinction is this: Is he playing or practicing?"

Kostelny's bottom-line recommendation to parents: If your kids insist on playing with guns, let them use sticks or their fingers. "That way, you're not promoting it or encouraging it," she said.

*

All this advice is well and good, but it's too late for my household. We've made our uneasy truce with the war machine by engineering the disappearance of a realistic-looking toy gun given as a gift, but agreeing to allow Ninja Turtle swords and Power Rangers.

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