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War toys: the battle continues. Plastic arsenals still abound, as do opinions about their dangers

By Keith HendersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 14, 1987


G.I. JOE has slipped to No. 3 on the best-selling toys list, the Los Angeles City Council has banned the sale of look-alike toy guns, and the numbers of people involved in grass-roots activism against toy weaponry have grown. But the battle over war toys is far from won, say organizers and researchers who are in the thick of this controversy.

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They point to the volume of toys that play on themes of conflict and the firmly welded connection between many of these toys and children's television programming. Hasbro, for instance, the largest toy producer in the United States, devotes nearly half of its 1987 catalog (the boy's half, of course) to such combative favorites as Battle Beasts, Air Raiders, and Transformers, as well as G.I. Joe.

Behind the array of war-related toys in stores this holiday season - from plastic guns to ``action figures'' - lies the difficult question of their effect on children and society. On one side are those who feel war play teaches insensitivity to others and instills militaristic attitudes. On the other are people who say such play is natural and nothing to worry about.

Action figures like G.I. Joe and He-Man are essentially ``updated toy soldiers,'' says Doug Thompson, head of the Toy Manufacturers of America. He sees the popularity of these items tied to patriotism and the enduring attraction of battle play for kids. He also views public concern over war toys as largely the work of ``a vocal minority'' and the news media. ``I don't believe they've gotten the attention of middle America,'' says Mr. Thompson.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an associate professor of education at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., disagrees.

``I've talked to parents from many different social and educational backgrounds, and with differing political beliefs, and they all say the same thing,'' she says. ``Parents know that something is wrong. They know their kids are obsessed with TV-based war toys, that they're asking for them all the time. And they're trapped. Their children are begging for these things and they equate them with love.''

Parental concern may be reflected in the vigor of the nationwide campaign spearheaded by the New England War Resisters League. Since early fall, the league has sold 2,000 antiwar toy organizers' packets to people from all corners of the US, according to Joanne Sheehan, a coordinator for the campaign. That's a substantial increase over last year's orders. Typically, local activists distribute leaflets to shoppers and organize ``alternative toy fairs'' to highlight manufacturers that don't produce war-related items.

Educational efforts are having some impact, says Stevanne Auerback, a child psychologist and head of the San Francisco International Toy Museum. ``But this is just the beginning of it. We have a long way to go before there's going to be a change, as long as there are parents out there buying the toys.''

Contrary to Thompson of the Toy Manufacturers Association, Dr. Carlsson-Paige draws a sharp distinction between current war toys and the cowboys, Indians, and soldiers of the past. She and co-author Diane Levin, an education professor at Wheelock College in Boston, recently compiled their findings and observations in ``The War Play Dilemma'' (Teachers College Press).

They concede the argument that war play has been around for millennia and can help meet children's needs to feel powerful and in control of something - a position taken by many child-development experts.