Concern grows in US over resurgence in military toys

In the cavernous Child World showroom in this Boston suburb, two young boys are looking over the latest in toy weaponry. One grabs an M-16 replica, the other a ''sonic fazer,'' and they begin to shoot it out in the aisle.

Increasingly, this scene is being played out in toy stores and homes across the country as sales of ''war toys'' boom - from six-guns to anti-terrorist equipment.

''They have sold well,'' says Lisa Shneider, Child World marketing manager, referring to toy-gun sets and military action figures. ''They're one of our strongest items. I guess you have to attribute this to the feeling that once again our country has to be protected.''

While this renewed respect for the military means profits for toy companies, many child specialists are concerned about the trend.

Several years ago, market researchers espied a rise in patriotism, a sentiment that had diminished during the '60s and '70s. The $9 billion toy industry wasted no time in capitalizing on the discovery:

* Sales of toy guns and rifles have doubled nationwide in the last four years , up from $36 million in 1979 to $72 million in 1982, according to statistics from Toy Manufacturers of America, a consortium of 240 toy makers. This marked one of the largest non-video gains during this period.

* GI Joe, pressed back into active duty last year by Hasbro Industries after a seven-year furlough brought on largely by Vietnam, grossed nearly $50 million in 1982. In the first half of 1983, sales have already exceeded last year's total, and GI Joe is currently one of the top-selling toys in the United States, according to Toy and Hobby World. ''There is no way for production to keep up with the demand,'' says Robert Prupis, Hasbro's senior marketing director.

A favorable market for military-related toys, although only a small component of overall industry sales, is expected to continue through the holiday season, say market analysts.

Rearmament in the toy industry reverses a trend that began in 1968, when many manufacturers discontinued their toy-gun lines because of lack of demand and pressure from a ''toy disarmament'' movement. Sears, Roebuck & Co., for instance , dropped war toys from its l968 holiday catalog, but reintroduced them in 1982 because of increased demand and competition from other retailers.

Extensive media attention to the Iranian hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and other national security matters has also sparked children's interest in military-related toys.

The trade magazine Toys, Hobbies & Crafts recently echoed toy manufacturers' enthusiasm for military toys: ''Think military! . . . Given [the] new military consciousness, it seems only natural that leading toy companies are putting renewed energy into military-related toy lines.''

Many child specialists, however, are concerned that playing with military-related toys could promote and reinforce aggressive attitudes and actions in children.

Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television, says toy companies are seeking profits at the expense of children's well-being.

''The toy industry has perceived that war is a popular idea and is therefore saleable,'' Mrs. Charren says. This new acceptance of war has shown up in the programming and advertising on Saturday morning television, a situation she calls a ''self-fulfilling prophecy,'' teaching youngsters that war is a panacea.

''A toy gun, as a gift from a parent, is an endorsement for the use of guns, '' says Ellen Smith, chairwoman of Alternatives to War Toys - a San Diego-based group that advocates creative alternatives to military toys.

Ms. Smith says children's attraction to playing cops and robbers is not a justification for buying them toy guns. ''There is a qualitative difference between what a child comes up with himself and what we've given him and endorsed ,'' she says.

Stevanne Auerbach, a child psychologist and president of the Institute for Childhood Resources in San Francisco, is also concerned with the trend toward military toys. ''Children should have a safe childhood and have safe toys that will not harm them physically or psychologically,'' she says. ''It's not the guns; it's all that goes with them - the reinforcement and acting out of violence.''

However, Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith of the University of Pennsylvannia Graduate School of Education, argues that ''puritanical'' attempts to ''cure society by taking war toys away from children'' are both hypocritical and futile.

''If you are going to take away war toys, then what are you to replace them with?'' he says. ''Children need to feel courageous, brave, and assertive. They need to feel strong; that is the purpose of their play.''

The more imaginative a child is, the less aggressive he will be, Dr. Sutton-Smith says. The context of attitudes and values in which children mature is more important than what type of toy they play with, he argues.

No study has conclusively linked war toys and aggressive behavior in children , he says.

Ms. Smith also warns against dogmatic attitudes toward war toys. Rather, each family should think through its own decision, always conscious of the values each toy imparts. She says that ''Each family can take its own steps toward teaching peace. It may not be that a total elimination of war toys is the answer for every family.''

''Children will know our values if we communicate them clearly,'' she says.

Today's 'Perspectives' column, on the Education page, examines why a child's play is a serious matter.m

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