War Toys for All

Not so long ago, my son, my daughter & I had one of those backseat of the car conversations that provide invaluable  fodder for growth.

As it transpired, we got into the usual discussion about boy colors and girl colors, boy toys and girl toys, boy backpacks and girl packpacks, boy jobs and girl jobs…you know how it goes.

Both parroted back the usual assumptions: Camouflage? Boy.  Blue? Boy? Army? Boy.

But when it came to Pink? I was roundly chastised: “MOM, NO ONE in my class likes pink anymore.”  And as for Princesses, well, they’re really embarrassing because of, well, the whole kissing thing.

(It has been true for us, that left to her own devices, and not oversaturated with licensed merchandise, Ella’s princess phase passed definitively, with no long-lived damage.)

But when I questioned more specifically, the foundation crumbled.  Ella’s favorite color? Blue.  Did women serve in the military? Yes.  Hilary Clinton? Nearly President.  Donald Trump? Pink ties.  I had a host of counter-examples at the ready, and it didn’t take much at all to untangle their knot of assumptions around gender-based bias. Which come in very large part from the Pottery Barn Kids catalogue.

Of course, there are clearly and scientifically measurable differences between boys and girls.  See the really excellent The Female Brain, which I think should be close to required reading for parents of girls.  Girls and boys do tend to play differently, to engage in slightly different play strategies, to gravitate toward different categories of toys. And yet, this tells us nothing about the individual.  My 5 year old boy colors for as many hours as he plays LEGOS. He absconds with his sister’s baby dolls almost as often as he attacks her with his light saber.  He has been known to cry over truly sad moments in his picture books.  He is as empathic as he is aggressive.  And his sister?  Ella loves LEGOS and K’NEX and unit blocks as much as her brother, and is as engaged in her club soccer team as she is in this year’s Nutcracker rehearsal. She packed a sword with her pirate costume this year, and did battle on the sidewalk with her friend, also a girl, also a pirate with a sword.  Girls and boys might tend to gravitate toward traditional gendered activities, but these in no way have defined my children or even governed their play life.

Most of all, while I actually do believe that gender based differences exist (whether we attribute them to nature or culture or both…) I don’t want my children to believe they are defined by these nor–and maybe this is more important–to define other people by gender-linked traits.  This is a more nuanced position than even a very intelligent 7-year-old can understand, so for now I stick with the old-school feminist position.

That said, Finn has taught me a lot about aggression and boys.  There is  a clear difference in his mind between real guns and swords, which hurt people, and the toy ones he plays with.   He has pointed this out to me over and over again since he was 3.

Still, the former peace activist in me resisted for a long time, for all the usual reasons, and although we still have a no gun policy in the house, I have roundly relented on swords and light sabers. I’m not at all sure, categorically speaking, that there’s a difference between a fake gun and fake light saber or a fake gun and fake sword.   I suspect the knee-jerk reaction we parents can have to toy guns is that we see so much real-world gun violence all around us, everday, that as a result fantasy play with guns is that much more disturbing than, say, Darth Vader chopping the head off of Obi Wan Kenobi in a Galaxy Far Far Away.  There’s a mythology of nobility and honor and old fashioned good vs. evil in the Star Wars universe, and most kid pirates have no idea of the real brutality of what’s happening off the Somali coast.  Such play appears to be at such a distance from reality that it is harmless.

I have been utterly compelled watching my daughter duel with light sabers and swords with her brother, her father, her friends. I like the confidence and sense of control it gives her. I like that it makes her feel powerful.  I realize this might be very, very wrong, but neither of my kids are violent or aggressive in real life social situations.  Their fantasy play can be a different story, and I like that it gives her space to safely act out and control her physical aggression, power, assertiveness.

So, on the one hand, while we are raising our kids to believe in and work for peace, to understand the devastating nature of war in precise and horrible ways, to protect the environment, and to protest unjust war, I am also no longer convinced that banning all war toys and all forms of “war” play is necessary to creating a culture of respect and peace in the home.  I, for instance, who had water guns etc. grew up to be a war tax resistor. And maybe we need to take a lesson from our kids and believe them when they tell us they know the difference between real and fantasy violence.

Moreover, whatever we believe about any given war or military service in general, I think now that I owe it to my daughter to teach them that women do serve, with honor and distinction, that women can and do handle guns and fight.  Some believe this is a dubious achievement in the fight for equality, but I am more pragmatic.   I want Ella to know that women can be very strong in more ways than one.  So I give her swords and light sabers and, this Christmas,  I suspect Santa will be stuff both my children’s stockings with atomic ray blasters.

I have no good pictures of Pirate Girl + sword, but I can leave you with the high point of our Halloween party, in which Finn and his Clone Trooper friend did endless battle with the Evil Fog Machine.

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5 Responses

  1. Uncle Andy gave Lily one of those NERF gun things that shoot both little darts with suction cups attached and these foam missile/rocket things. He spent $1.07 on it at the 99 cent store, and of course it was her favorite gift last christmas. She liked it better than the $50 Barbie Hair salon heads and hair coloring products that she begged and begged for starting that previous October. She especially liked that our cat LOVED to chase the little foam rocket thing, because it allowed her to scream bossy things at the cat.

  2. I think parents need to hear this a lot more often — that this kind of play doesn’t mean what we think it does, and that we are doing a disservice to both daughters and sons when we ban aggression (since aggression is obviously part of human nature).

  3. I agree with you that some aggressive play is okay and we don’t need to be too fearful of that impulse. I do notice, however, that it seems that what we define as “feminine” is being devalued by both kids. Not only do boys not like pink, but now “no one” likes pink anymore. I wonder if masculine toys are seen as strong and no one (girls or boys) wants to be seen as weak. I’m not saying that is necessarily happening. But I wonder. Princesses aren’t all bad. Pink is a lovely color. And there is strength beyond aggression. I just hope “girly” stuff doesn’t get short shrift in the process of girls opening their horizons.

    Thank you,
    Amy

    • Thanks for all these great comments. I’m sure this is not the last I’ll write about this topic.

      Amy, I really appreciate the idea that just as aggressive super hero play is not all bad, neither are pink princesses. There’s something to be said, I think , about not regulating our children’s imaginations and letting them be nurtured equally by pink/blue/camouflouge/rainbows….

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