Are war toys more acceptable now?

As a shopper, I reluctantly admit, at the big-chain toy stores, I have noticed more camouflage-clad action figures on the shelves. Many come equipped with the latest military weapons.

Perhaps such military-style toys have always been there, but it seems - and I don't think this is my imagination - that they've been given more prominent shelf space since the war with Iraq.

As the parent of a 6-year-old boy, I have avoided buying toy guns and military-themed action figures such as G.I. Joe. Both made me uncomfortable, as a mom who had absorbed the message that little boys who play with war toys can become more aggressive.

But as Americans rallied behind the troops in Iraq, many toy retailers pulled out their flags and dusted off the toy soldiers. The stigma attached to war toys, laid down by years of chiding by child-development experts, looked as if it might be dissipating.

But not if you talk to parents or look at the bestselling toys.

One mom of two boys, ages 5 and 7, from East Lansing, Mich., says she is even more adamant than in the past that her sons not play with war-themed toys.

"Frankly," she writes in an e-mail, "I found it disturbing and downright creepy that the local toy stores put up big displays of G.I. Joe and other such toys after the war broke out, as if it were just another seasonal sales promotion."

Despite newspaper front pages and TV news broadcasts full of images of soldiers, there doesn't appear to be a corresponding increase in sales of war-themed toys. In fact, no military toy even cracked the top 20 from March to May, the latest period for which figures are available, according to a spokeswoman at NPD Group, a tracking service. Meanwhile, sales of G.I. Joe increased by 46 percent from 2001 to 2002. But Hasbro, the company that makes the doll, says it's too early to connect sales with events such as Sept. 11, the war on terrorism, or the Iraq war.

And yet, even if parents try to avoid the assault of war toys at their local Toys 'R' Us, the dilemma persists. Does it work to forbid kids from acting out battles?

One mother in the Boston area says she won't buy toy guns or war action figures because she in no way wants "to send a message to my kids that war is acceptable or desired," she says. "It could be necessary and sometimes justified, but those discussions are reserved for when the kids can better understand."

Child-development experts say older kids are better at sorting out fact from fantasy, but they disagree about the age at which kids can hold two contradictory ideas at once: That guns are dangerous, yet needed by soldiers to do their job.

If a child sees wartime footage on TV, or acts out a battle scene from a movie or TV show, how does a parent react?

George Scarlett, an assistant professor of child development at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., doesn't buy the argument that all war play is bad for kids. "At one extreme is undeveloped war play in which children use statements like 'I'm shooting you!' and give little attention to creating stories and fantasy worlds," he says.

At the other extreme is highly developed war play in which children develop characters, solve problems, and evolve whole fantasy worlds. "The evidence shows [that] real aggression is associated with undeveloped war play, but the opposite is true of highly developed war play."

The message here, Scarlett says, "is to support war play's development, rather than discourage it just because the theme is war."

Today, in the wake of events such as the terrorist attacks, some child experts go so far as to say that war play is necessary, allowing kids to work out their fears and anger constructively.

Many parents find all this conflicting advice exhausting.

And kids can get around the no-gun rule: They simply use a stick, a Popsicle, or a banana as their weapon. Depriving them of the prop doesn't stop their desire to playact war, especially if they see guns as a source of power.

As I think about my son, whose play is more generic "good guys versus bad guys," I don't see the aggression carry over into his play with other children. And his questions about the conflict in Iraq reveal a naiveté that I treasure: He thinks the soldiers are fighting mostly with swords. This isn't surprising, because his knowledge of combat is limited to historic battles and pirate movies.

I'm still not crazy about military-themed toys, nor do I want to sound like a gung-ho war supporter, but I've concluded that such play probably won't make my son more aggressive.

After all, boys have played with war toys for generations and most have grown up into peace-loving, well-adjusted men.

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