There are two main reasons for today’s post. First, Christmas and other gift-giving holidays are right around the corner and millions of children will be jumping out of bed and running to see which new toys are under the tree. Second, we have all been reeling from the horrible Connecticut shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school last Friday and debates are all over about what caused it and how we can prevent such tragedies in the future. I don’t presume to have all the answers, only to add to the conversation. How may the toys we buy for our children influence the attitudes they have about gender and violence growing up?
For young children, playing is life and work; the way children play has everything to do with how and what they learn about themselves and the world around them. It influences brain development, social skills, emotional intelligence, and physical health. Maria Montessori at the Child Development Institute reminds us that “75% of brain development occurs after birth.” She writes:
The activities engaged in by children both stimulate and influence the pattern of the connections made between the nerve cells. This process influences the development of fine and gross motor skills, language, socialization, personal awareness, emotional well-being, creativity, problem solving and learning ability.
Of these, socialization, personal awareness, emotional well-being, and problem solving ability are all factors in why gun violence has been so prevalent in recent years even as gun ownership has decreased.
Socialization teaches children what the world expects of them; how they should act and feel, what they should do. Personal awareness allows children a means of balancing the world’s expectations with their own individuality; it helps them stay true to themselves. Emotional well-being gives children the stability to successfully navigate everything they are learning and the choices they have to make. Problem solving ability provides children with many options for how to creatively get what they need from what they are given.
With improper socialization, personal awareness, emotional well-being, and problem solving ability, children are less likely to understand right and wrong, how to process their difficult emotions, or how to deal with the problems in their lives. Children like these grow up to be adults with similar problems.
Parents can tell their children over and over again what the world expects of them, who they are, how to feel, and how to solve problems, but the way they will remember is through experience. This is where playing with toys comes in.
“If play is the work of the child, toys are the tools,” writes Montessori. So what tools are we giving our children to work with?
More and more, we see children playing with small electronic devices, computers, and control pads that offer the child content to explore, rather than allowing them the opportunity to invent content. As Montessori notes, “Play content should come from the child’s own imagination and experiences.” Video and computer games that come with story-lines, characters, and goals provide little opportunity for children to imagine stories or think creatively. These toys and games often provide passive entertainment for children rather than engaging them interactively. More often than not, games targeted at boys glorify violence, while games targeted at girls glorify beauty, friendship, and care-taking.
When children are engaged interactively, the toys are often more focused on very gendered role-play. Boys are usually given guns and swords, action figures, transformers, sports equipment, construction tools, spy gadgets, and other toys that encourage action and aggression. Girls are usually given baby dolls and strollers, makeup kits, Barbies, house-cleaning supplies like brooms and vacuum cleaners, and other toys that encourage gentleness and socializing.
Not too long ago, however, toys were not so limited for children. Watch these clips of toy ads in the 70s and 80s and watch how they changed in so short a time.
For the most part, the toys advertised in the 70s were interactive and non-gendered, like “Bing Bang Boing,” “Bug Out,” and “Slip’n’Slide.” Games like “Masterpiece” encouraged role-play that was cultured without being gendered: instead of fighting with guns or playing with dolls, children could place bids on famous works of art!
In the 80s commercials, we begin to see more action figures, transformers, and weapons being advertised. The “Master of the Universe” theme is introduced in a toy aimed at boys, a very powerful and aggressive title. The most disturbing new trend in these ads is the use of adult men in advertising toys for young boys. The “Power Glove” has the catch-phrase: “everything else is child’s play.” But it is a toy meant for children! In these ads, there is more of an emphasis on aggression and fighting, and all of them are marketed to boys.
In her video entitled Toys and Learning Gender, Feminist Frequency talks more about how toys are marketed to boys and girls in the present decade. Here’s a hint: It hasn’t gotten any better.
Gun ownership in the United States is split pretty evenly between men and women, with 43% being male and 35% being female, but when it comes to how those guns are used, there is a drastic difference. Trends from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that 65% of homicides are perpetrated by men against men and 23% by men against women. That’s a total of 88% of homicides perpetrated by men.
Of gun homicides, 91% of offenders are men. Why the huge difference? It cannot be a coincidence that these statistics correlate so perfectly with the way toys are marketed to boys and girls.
If socialization, personal awareness, emotional well-being, and problem solving ability are all skills that children are meant to learn from playing with toys, what are boys learning from the toys they are given?
From playing with toy guns and action figures, boys are learning that appropriate interactive play with other children (especially other boys) is aggressive and competitive; they are learning that the world expects them to take action and to fight; they are learning to be aware of their speed and their strength; they are learning how to process only their angry emotions; and they are learning that violence is an acceptable and normal method of problem-solving.
This powerful connection between masculinity and violence is very threatening, because while both girls and boys might play with action figures or toy guns, boys are the ones who are more likely to use them violently and believe it is okay.
When I was younger, I loved cowboys and Star Wars. I was very interested in playing with pistols and lightsabers, but my parents had strict rules about how these toys were to be used. I was not to point guns at anything alive. Ever. Forget pulling the trigger! If a gun so much as swung in the face of my father for a split second, it was taken away for a period of time. This was a rule easily broken with carelessness, but there were no exceptions for accidents. I had to be extremely careful. I was warned that if I transgressed again, the toy would be taken away permanently.
My parents understood that having these kinds of pretend weapons were fun and useful for role-play and imaginative purposes. With them, I could pretend to be a cowboy or a Jedi and prance around the house with my pistol at my side or my lightsaber clipped to my belt. But they waited until I was old enough to understand the concept that weapons are not toys and are never to be used to hurt anyone. Growing up, the knowledge that violence is never the answer was non-negotiable and never questioned.
If parents are not willing or able to take these kinds of measures with their children’s toys, they simply should not be used. Just like gun ownership for adults is a legal right that comes with a lot of responsibility, so too should be playing with toy guns.
The culture of violence and aggression marketed to boys affects how men react to problems in their lives and contributes to the gun violence we have been witnessing.
So, while you are finishing up your last-minute Christmas shopping, what toys will you buy for your son or daughter? And how will those toys influence the kind of citizen they will grow up to be?