Boys’ Toys

| September 3, 2006 | 25 Replies

I was trying to think of a way to impress Erika Price (see Erika’s comment here), when it dawned on me.

I was shopping at a big box toy store in St. Louis County tonight, accompanied by my wife and children.  I was waiting for my family to make a purchase when I realized that I had a camera available in the car. I ran out to get the camera to snap a few photos to help raise a simple question:  Are boys getting an overdose of the idea that violence is the best first approach to solving human conflict?  Asked another way, how often is it that a toy marketed to boys suggests that there are ways of solving problems other than smacking someone on the head, stabbing them, shooting them, vaporizing them or slamming them into a wall?  Based on the toys that one Toys R Us store displayed most prominently, the answer is not often. On what do I base this conclusion?  Read on and enjoy the slide show.

Before you go thinking that I am a radical pacifist.  Consider these things.  I voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.  Also consider that I loved superhero comic books growing up.  Further, I supported military action against the Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks.  Violence sometimes has a place in solving some situation, in my opinion.

But back to the store.  There’s no hint of violence in the baby toys.  There’s not much even in the 4-6 year old range.

For boys over 6, though, it gets overwhelming.  There are other toys, of course.  There are board games and bicycles, toy cars and water toys (though even some of these have aggressive characteristics).  If you look really carefully, you might even find the small section of educational toys, all segregated away.  It’s the violent toys that are promoted prominently, however.  They are at the front of the store, impossible to miss. Let’s start with the standard fare:  Batman, Star Wars and G.I. Joe.

Here’s a highly realistic set of soldiers. 

I have nothing against soldiers.  I am in awe of the dedication of the members of the U.S. military (I am getting a good inside view by reading Paul Rieckhoff’s recent book, Chasing Ghosts I highly recommend this for anyone trying understand what we’re putting our ground troops through in Iraq).

Back to Batman, et al.  There are a lot more superheroes I haven’t shown here.  Because of the recent movie, Superman is heavily featured, for instance.  I know that some of you are thinking that I’m sexist, because I’m failing to note that girls too might buy these “boys” toys.  I dare you—stand around these “boys” toys for an hour and look for the girls.  There will only be a few, most of them looking for their brothers.  Oh, yeah.  Check out the current version of the Power Rangers:

The traditional superheroes and soldiers are just the start.  There is an entire aisle of swords daggers and, guns and other weapons, something to fit every size of small hand.

Some of us don’t need weapons to make a point, of course.   There are lots of these wrestling dolls and paraphernalia.

I should note that I am only showing about 20% of the violent toys displayed in the store I visited.  Here, I need to wrap this up.  Therefore, take a look at the wide variety of “Bionicles,” mechanized rocket-shooting robots.

Consider, also, the Nika Bionicles, for those who wouldn’t dare be seen in public with a regular Bionicle.

Bionicles are really hot, it seems (a friend’s son has several dozen of these things).  Therefore, there is competition.  Check out the Lego brand Exo Force robots:

As I suggested at the beginning of this post, my point is simple:  to what extent are boys being encouraged, by the most heavily promoted toys, to consider alternates to violence, as the first choice of conflict resolution?   The answer is not much.

These sorts of violent toys have been marketed for decades.  Thus, the obvious follow-up question: to the extent that many men have been taught (while boys) that violence is the most obvious first solution to human conflicts, have their adult attitudes toward wars and their attitudes toward a certain war-mongering president been affected by their favorite toys?


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Category: American Culture, Psychology Cognition, War

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Boy monkeys prefer boy toys | Dangerous Intersection | February 13, 2009
  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Let's not forget that an agressive thalamic response to irritation is instinctive. All species exhibit it. The marvel of human civilization is that we've largely learned to delay or even suppress this response. Children have to reach a certain level of maturity before they can be expected not to "hit back" for a perceived slight even in the most pacifist of homes. They imagine this response to be normal, and project it into the wider world around them until taught otherwise.

    Do the marketing people pander to this? Yes. Do they encourage it? Yes. Do they cause it? No.

    I was raised in the home of two parents who both barely survived wars. Guns of any kind were forbidden in the house. We didn't have television until I was going to school. Before I was exposed to advertising, I made clothespin guns. I whined for and finally got a bag of plastic cowboys and indians, who never got along.

    "A small boy will manage to use even the most delicate and sophisticated toy as a club." I forget where I read this, but it does make me think of the military mind.

    War toys have been around since the beginning of toys; any archaeologist can tell you that. Apparently, letting children (mostly boys) work out their aggressions with these toys reduces their need to work them out on the playground. The scientific jury's not yet in on that, but the cultural evidence seems to support it.

  2. hogiemo says:

    Erich, I submit that insofar as it might relate to the issue of war toys and "warmongering" presidents, you are guilty of the fallacy of false composition. The general does not necessarily give us the specific.

    Bush didn't get us into a war in Iraq because he had war toys, he did it because he and his narcissistic personality disordered neo-con yobbo yapper coporate facist supporters and sycophants needed another source of fear to replace the Cold War and the Commies to make us afraid and vote Republican because the Dems are "soft" on terrorism.

    My wife and I decided we wouldn't have war toys in the house. I haven't bought these things for my kids but, they have come as gifts. We had believed the invasion of the war toys to be inevitable so we invented games (the "quiet game" where the first to make a noise or talk is "out") and created practices for our children to support creative, non-violent resolutions (our kids have us tell them stories where they invent the characters and the elements of the story and we go from these to weave a story using all of these, and when there's a conflict have a talk about ways they could get by an impasse without "bonks" or "clobberings"- magic could only be used once then, they had to come up with something else). We have supported our children so as to develop critical thinking skills to avoid conflict and supported the growth of empathy so as to create awareness of others.

    I see the role of parenting as essential to promoting non-violent, peaceful resolutions of disputes and misunderstandings. I see first a choice which we must make as individuals. However we might hope we may shield our kids, they aren't at home 24/7 nor does modern culture and society stay at bay for long. If we start kids young, nuture them in our family culture which supports non-violence and empathy, they will constantly surprise us.

    Recently, my son invited a neighbor over to play. The neighbor kid wanted to play "knights" and my son wanted to watch a video. My son had specifically asked if his friend would come over and watch a video with him. The neighbor kid left, frustrated, and told my son he wasn't a good friend. My boy told me what had happened, and that he was mad at his friend because he had invited him over to see a video and then didn't want to do what they had agreed. I asked him if he still wanted the other boy as his friend, he said: "yeah, he's my best friend". I asked if he thought what had been done or said had ended that friendship, he said no. I asked him what he wanted to do now and he said, to play with his friend. I asked him if he had listened to his friend when he came over and he said he hadn't "because…". My son agreed that the friend was more important than having his way, that he could have listened better and decided to tell his friend he was sorry that he hadn't listened better to what his friend had wanted to do. I told my son listening didn't mean he always had to do what others wanted but, he should at least listen to others. Later, I was doing yard work when the boys met in the front of the house. My son apologized to the other boy for not listening when he had come over. The other boy said he was sorry for yelling at my boy and calling him names. Then they picked up their swords and armor and went to battle a mean dragon which was being ridden by a bad guy.

  3. Erika Price says:

    Again, more great stealthy, big-box sabotaging work. I don't know how you get away with it–maybe employees don't want to confront an "adult" but take no issue with threatening to remove a "troublesome teenager" like me. Or I need to learn to behave discreetly…

    Anyway, as one of those girls that often played with boys' toys as a child, I would say that these violent amusements only represent a small symbol of the overall problem. I have as small a violent streak as the average girl, even though I played with toys that had guns, swords, and personal vendettas against eachother.

    BUT I didn't have people telling me to "take things like a man" and "suck it up" when I cried. No one forced me to play youth sports with the bloodthirsty competitiveness you see in boys' sports. No friends pressured me to seem strong and to pick on weaker kids. I didn't have to worry, as young boys do, of getting called "gay" for not reveling in manly activities and conducting accordingly.

    Boys' toys alone, then, can have a negligible effect. But coupled with the social conditioning of boys to enjoy violence as evidence of their masculinity and strength, they can pack quite a punch (excuse the pun) in making violence widely accepted.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    I don't know the rules of the stores regarding photography. They should be happy to allow customers to photograph the wares, though. I've always made sure that I actually purchased something to deflect any possible accusation that I was trespassing. Further, I've always subscribed to the view that the most effective way to get something done is to act like you belong there and that you are SUPPOSED to be doing it.

    Here is a tempting next photo shoot: the books sold by Wal-Mart. I have it on good evidence that they don't reflect a true cross section of books in print . . .

  5. Jennifer says:

    This is a wonderful essay. The question you ask at the end is a good one. I can’t really answer it, being a woman and all. But upon reflection, it seems to me that the physically aggressive (violent) toys marketed to boys in decades past served a different purpose. GI Joe, cowboys, even Batman, were heroes who fought the bad guys in order to save civilization. They didn’t go looking for a fight, but used their physical prowess and weapons to do good. Now it seems like most of these toys are just promoting violence for the sake of violence. I don’t know; I could be wrong. Like I said, I’m a girl, so what do I know? 😉

  6. Jason Rayl says:

    The rules have changed since the advent of picture cell-phones, because their use has increased sales in some areas, but traditionally stores are quite jealous of their "displays" and frowned on in-store photography because the photographer might be working for a competitor or even a–gasp!–law firm representing someone about to sue the store.

    Wal-Mart is notorious for a "community standards" approach to the books on display in their stores (which community you need only guess)–but when you go to their website you can find nearly anything you might find on a B&N shelf.

  7. hogiemo says:

    Erich, waddya think. 10 percent of the US goods imported from China are purchased by Wal*Mart. "Always" means low prices because of prison labor factories owned by the military and involuntary organ "donation" by prisoners of conscience.

    Wal*Mart is dispicable. I'm sure Sam is rolling over in his grave to see what his children have wrought. Boycott Wal*Mart!

  8. Erika Price says:

    Yes, and WalMart pushes to lower the price of its goods every year. That means they force the overseas workers to increase production, or face getting shut down. Many a worker gives a 14 hour workday for a declining wage.

    WalMart also really snubs their US workers, by not providing health care, fighting unions tooth-and-nail, and even forcing workers to clock out and keep working free of pay when they haven't completed a task on time. I recommend the film Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price to anyone who would like to learn more about the numerous harms this company creates.

  9. hogiemo says:

    Oh, lest we forget. As a corporate contributor to Republicans, Wal*Mart is Number 1. Every dollar you spend there preserves thralldom and misery in the world.

  10. grumpypilgrim says:

    I agree with Erich's argument — there is clearly a dearth of toys that teach non-violent approaches to solving conflict — but to what extent does the reverse hold? Do war toys teach violent approaches to solving conflict, or do they merely allow little kids to act out their underdeveloped conflict-resolution skills?

    Also, consider the following: many children also play with toy construction equipment, cowboy outfits, cap guns, witch costumes, etc., yet how many of them grow up to become construction workers, cattle wranglers, gunslingers, Wiccans, etc.

  11. Jennie says:

    I agree with your points above. But, I'm not sure if it's the toy industry creating violent toys and marketing them to boys or reinforcing something that's already in boys' natures. My two brothers didn't have many manufactured "violent toys" but our backyard games always ended up being something like: cops and robbers with finger pistols, sword-fighting with sticks or tackle football.

    There are plenty of alternatives out there. For example, they also made forts, flew kites and caught bugs. But, I understand that it is almost impossible to keep boys from playing "violently" at least some of the time.

    One of the powers of being a grown-up is that you can introduce children to the many available alternatives, ones that can encourage their natural curiosity about activities that aren't so physical and ways of resolving problems without resorting to violence. But, I agree that you have to look a bit harder to find toys/products that reinforce that kind of curiosity and problem solving.

  12. gatomjp says:

    You cannot sell people something they don't want.

    The reason there are so many violent toys on the shelves is because they SELL. I am not defending violent toys, merely noting that if little boys clamored for fuzzy stuffed bunnies that said, "I love you!" then the aisles in the toy stores would be overflowing with them.

  13. gatomjp says:

    Why are people so uptight about having their picture taken?

    I don't mean to go off on a tangent here, but this is an old post so maybe no one will mind.

    What is the big deal about cameras? Why would Wal-Mart care if you took a picture of their shelves? What could you do with that?? How could that harm them?

    I am a videographer and I encounter may instances of suspicion in my travels. While shooting the exterior of a flower shop I had the burly owner of the transmission place next door come running out screaming at me to get away from his property.

    While taping a documentary about the world of bodybuilding, I was banned from entering a Costco with my video camera. The woman at the front yelled for the manager, "He has a CAMERA! He has a CAMERA!!" in the same tone she would have said, "He has a GUN!!"

    I was even picked up by a Sky Marshall in the Philadelphia International Airport for shooting some video of airliners taking off. I'm sure that I'm in the suspected terrorist database now! They took me to the security office and reviewed all of my footage. The main thing they were looking for was to see if I had taped any of the x-ray checkpoint.

    What's the big deal?

  14. Dan Klarmann says:

    I was taking snapshots and digital video in an East Berlin subway in 2003, and was berated (in Russian, German, and finally English) by a passenger for not having first gotten permission from everyone in the train before taking pictures!

    East Berlin hadn't existed as a separate political unit for about a decade, but their subway trains are quite different from those in West Berlin. I was fascinated by how I could look down along the whole train from the inside and watch it writhe as the tunnel dipped and turned.

    When I am behind a lens, I just see subjects, never individuals.

  15. richard says:

    Their just toys. kids enjoy playing with them. Tell children not to be violent. if you do this from a young age the kids wont be violent… hopfuly. These toys sell ask a supermarket

  16. Erich Vieth says:

    Richard: It sounds a bit odd to buy violent toys for young boys and to take on the task of convincing those boys to avoid using those toys to act out violence. Why not just start with non-violent toys? Why not have our kids spending more time learning about nature and the scientific method, rather than pretending to blow up so many things?

  17. Dan Klarmann says:

    Combine learning with explosions: Baking soda, vinegar, and a corked bottle. Or Mentos and diet cola.

  18. Andrew says:

    Toys aren't at all the problem. Having been to Japan, I can tell you children have been watching cartoons with far more death and violence since the '80s than we show to our own here now in the U.S. They buy and play with toys from these cartoons as well. Yet, despite this, Japan maintains an extremely low overall crime rate when compared to modern western nations such as the U.S. or Britain. Taking all of this into account, if violent toys have any effect on the development of children, it is by far outweighed by how parents raise them along with so many various cultural and environmental factors. A child is more heavily influenced by his family and friends than little colored pieces of plastic.

  19. grumpypilgrim says:

    gatomjp says, "You cannot sell people something they don’t want."

    While I agree with that statement, it ignores the fact that what people want is highly susceptible to influence and manipulation. If this were not the case, the huge global advertising industry would not exist. As long as humans are vain, ambitious, egotistical, greedy, stupid, hypocritical, etc., advertisers will find ways to push their buttons. Just this morning, I saw a television advertisement for a huge SUV that the ad referred to as "fuel-efficient." The ad then touted the ability of this SUV to pull a trailer loaded with a pair of jet skis. How anyone could overlook the absurdity of "fuel efficient" being used to describe a monster SUV pulling jet skis is beyond me, but some ad agency, and its client, must have believed it would fly. Given the hypocrisy with which many Americans view their conspicuous consumption, it no doubt will, at least with some viewers.

  20. G.F.Brunner says:

    The real sad thing are not those weapons but the specialisation of those kits especially those lego kits, in my childhood there are only rectangular plain bricks,some 45 degree ones that could be used for roofs and wheels that we used for any kind of vehicle. we use the same brick to build anything that we can imagine without any restrictions that come from special designed parts as they used today.

    Yes if we want to have weapons we simply use plain branches from nearby trees and our imagination let us have a machine gun at range and if the opponents close in the same weapon become a sword because fighting with

    branches in sword style is more realistic than using them as a gun and yell "Bang!"

    Even if the build of arms led into pewter six guns with black powder ammo for the real bang we rely on

    our proven wood sticks at close range if the ammo run out.

  21. NINJUN09 says:

    The guy's exaggerating. I'm a kid and play with Bionicles, actually, I must own half the global stock. I also am a fan of Exo-Force, and I'm NOT walking 'round the neighborhood, blasting everyone with my dad's gun. I also recently discovered the site BrickGun, and I'm impressed. I'm still not a serial killer. See? We can play with toys that implicate slight violence without becoming a hell-bent murderer. Just chill, man.

  22. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I agree with NINJUN09 and G.F.Brunner.

    When I was a child, my mother was of the opinion that violent toys were bad, so instead of toy guns as such, I eas given a large set of American Bricks. Although similar to Legos in concept, American Bricks featured a slightly different design from legos that permitted more ways to interlock the blocks and I made brick buildings, I made brick guns, I made brick airplanes and bombers with little brick bombs, and brick spaceships.

    I did not grow up to be a weapons designer or a soldier or a serial killer. Years ago, when looking for toys for my sons, I was surprised to find that modern construction sets are very limited in what you can build with them. I looked at link-its and legos, construx, bionicle, robotix, capsela and others. The most impressive buildit toy I found was geomags which are now scattered throughout the house.

    I don't think the toys teach violence. Violence is learned from friends and parents. My dislike is the specialisation of the kits. It is more important to build a rough model of anything you can imagine than to build a refined model of a few things someone else imagined.

  23. Camden says:

    You so badly need to tell me where all them bionicles are,, what shop, or website because i am interested in Bionicle building, I LOVE BIONICLES!!!!!!

    Email me if you have any suggestions on where the shop is…

    And please please don't say America

  24. Tucker Chapin says:

    to respond bionicles have been sadly discontinued but can still ve found in toys r us and targets nationwide along with lego stores worldwide. i have been playing with legos and bionicles for almost fourteen years now, almost my entire life. my parents are very incredibly anti violence, guns, war etc. but bionicle especially and constrluction sets are imaginative. they excersize your brain and i am a soon to be engineer. that is what they have tought me, not to kill people, pick fights or be pro army but how things work. also i disagree with the fact that legos are too specialized and limited. the technic and bionicle sets have mecome more solid and less complicated and fun than they were in the begining but they are still amazingly fun. legos have not changed, so much as added. with the expansion of theor inventory it doesnt allow for less imaginativity but more as it can facilitate this and channel it better with the multitude of parts and peices.

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