She’d been out shoe-shopping with our three boys: Nick, 11, J.J., 9, and Adam, 6, and bought the boys each a bag as a reward for being good. The boys were excited when they got home. “Look, Dad! Army men!” “Oh, uh…cool,” I said. Really thinking: is it? Is this good parenting? Warily I glanced over at my beloved spouse. She knew exactly what was on my mind. After 16 years together, we can communicate telepathically, and have even been known to have fights over a thought (even though the thought was never spoken aloud). And the harried, harassed, hassled glance she shot me now said: don’t even think of thinking the thought you’re thinking.
And it’s true: getting the kids in and out of the mall is like a military operation in and of itself. It would be bad form, and could be construed as an act of aggression, for me to criticize any parenting decision Pam made “in the field,” so to speak, under fire, in the “hot zone,” the DMZ, of the mall. So rather than find myself in some nasty hand-to-hand combat with Pam, I kept my thoughts in their holster.
“Adam spotted them, Dad,” J.J. said. Then, matter-of-factly: “He likes war.”
“Really? Since when?”
J.J. shrugged. “I don’t know. He always liked war.”
News to me. I examined the little green men. I was amazed to discover they had changed not a whit since I was a kid. There was the guy with the bazooka. There was the guy standing up with a machine gun. There was the guy lying down with a machine gun. There was the guy with a rifle. There was the guy perpetually captured in plastic in the moment of being about to heave a hand grenade at the enemy. And there was the guy we always felt sorry for as kids: the guy who had somehow wound up on the field of battle armed with nothing more than a pistol.
The boys started playing with their toy soldiers, arranging them around the family room in various poses, just as my cousin Phil and I had as kids. They established beach-heads, devised strategies, created hierarchies. For the next two and a half hours, my boys, who normally scrap and squabble like there’s no tomorrow, played with amazing co-operativeness, in utter peace and harmony. Ironically, thanks to these little warlike, weapon-brandishing plastic men, peace had broken out in our household. And a subversive, heretical thought began to formulate itself in my cranium. Could it be playing with war toys and toy guns (oh, yeah, I forgot to mention, they also have toy guns, thanks to their dad, who’s an extremely soft touch “in the field”) isn’t so bad after all?
At least they weren’t staring slack-jawed and pinwheel-eyed at their computer screens or Game Boys or the TV. At least they were using their imaginations.
Maybe playing with toy soldiers was actually…good for the little buggers?
A heretical thought indeed, in the times in which we live. These days, throw a stick in a Canadian city or town and you’ll hit three lululemon/Mountain Equipment Co-op-wearing, yoga-practicing, baby-backpack-sporting parents who will tell you (just before climbing into their Volvo, chosen because it was rated “safest” car in its class) they abhor violence and would never dream of letting little Caitlin or Callum play with war toys.
Read More: Should Your Child Play with Toy Guns?
Society in general is in the midst of a paradigm shift towards making our children pacifists and shielding them from danger, risk, violence and rumours of war. They go on field trips to promote peace — like a group of New York preschoolers who went en masse to sing “It’s a Small World” around a 12-foot Tree of Peace. “I think it’s appropriate for three-year-olds to know the world needs to be a peaceful place for everybody and a safe place for everyone to live in,” their teacher said.
Many schools and municipalities have enacted legislation banning toy guns. Some parents — like an Ottawa-area mother named Amanda Sousa who was reportedly upset to discover the word gun on her daughter’s spelling test — don’t even want their children to spell the word gun. “The word gun is synonymous with death,” she wrote to her daughter’s teacher. “I’m racking my brain to think why a seven-year-old would need to learn this word…It’s an issue of protecting your child from violence. Guns are violent. End of story.” The school board agreed with Ms. Sousa and banned the word from spelling lists.
Meanwhile, playgrounds are torn down and revamped so they’re virtually risk-free. Many schools have rules against rough play and chasing games like tag and also leave-the-snow-on-the-ground rules, because if children pick up the snow they might make snowballs, and someone might get hurt.
But are we in fact creating more peaceful children by shielding them from violence and risk, and keeping them away from toy guns and soldiers and even the word gun? Dr. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, doesn’t think so. If anything, he says, it works the other way around. “Play is how children think,” he says. It’s also a “mastery behaviour,” and when children play, they enter a “zone of proximal development,” which means they use their fears and desires to improve themselves and to become stronger. There needs to be some risk and danger involved so they can learn to assess risk and danger — or else they will lack the tools to do so when they grow up.
It’s also very important, he says, for children (especially boys, he says, who are “naturally” more aggressive) to engage in “rough-and-tumble” play. In fact, it makes them gentler people in the long run. “The way children learn to limit their aggression is by play-fighting,” he says. And it’s not just humans. It’s the same with primates, dogs (anyone who has had a dog has noticed how it “schools” puppies to know their place) — and rats. Clinical studies have shown that rats who were allowed to play-fight with their fellow rats when they were young had more developed pre-frontal cortexes — and were therefore better able to control their aggressive impulses. Those who didn’t — well, they don’t fare so well as adults. “A surefire way to make a rat psychotically aggressive is by not allowing it to play-fight and wrestle with other rats,” Dr. Peterson says.
And war play, like team sports, he says, is a form of ritualized, organized “rough and tumble” play. “What we call “competitive sports’ are more about co-operation than competition,” he says. “Look at a hockey game. Everyone has to agree on the rules, on certain codes of conduct, on penalties for those who don’t abide by the rules. From a psychological point of view, there’s much more co-operation than competition going on in a hockey game.” In fact, he says, children don’t begin to socialize meaningfully with one another until they learn to co-operate and control their outbursts via team sports.
It’s the same with war games. “There’s never been any evidence to suggest kids who play with war toys are more likely to be warlike when they grow up,” he says. And in fact, by learning to co-operate and abide by rules, they probably become better able to function in society, just as they do in organized sports. War games bear only the most tangential, symbolic relationship to actual war, he says — kind of like chess. And are we going to stop people from playing chess?
Anyway, it’s bred in the bone, Dr. Peterson says. We may be Homo sapiens now, but we are descended from Homo habilis, “the tool maker.” And we see everything around us as a potential tool, weapon or projectile. (Think of Tom Hanks in Castaway, who used netting from a dress to make a fish net, and videotape to lash together the boards of his raft.) Our language is saturated with “projectile terms,” he points out: we like to “throw” a party, “launch” a new product line, “hit” our financial targets, sometimes we “miss” deadlines, and so on. The root of the word “sin” means “to miss the target.” “We see gravel on the ground and see it as something we could throw,” he says. “It’s innate.” Which is why, he says, from the point of view of modern psychology, if you take away your kid’s gun he’ll just pick up a stick in the backyard and start going “Blam! Blam!”
That definitely accords with my own observation of my boys. My mother says, “Boys are born with motors inside them,” because of how early they start going “vrrm, vrrm” — often before they talk. Certain things just seem innate in boys. I was a stay-at-home dad to my three boys, and the way we had to stop at every construction site, the way their ears perked up and eyes lit up every time they heard a siren or someone fired up a Harley — it’s something I don’t think parents of girls could understand.
Maybe playing with these figurines is just as innate? “Oh, definitely,” Patricia Hogan, a curator at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, laughs. “Boys have always been interested in playing with toy soldiers.” Four thousand years ago, the Egyptian prince Emsah was buried with his toy soldiers. The French king Louis XIII had three hundred silver soldiers. Louis XIV had a similar collection, but had to melt them down during an economic crisis. Czar Peter III, husband of Catherine the Great, had hundreds of toy soldiers. Winston Churchill was an avid collector — he had about 1,500 toy soldiers and used them to re-enact battles.
Playing with toy soldiers was mostly an aristocratic pastime before they started being mass-produced around the middle of the 20th century, says Hogan. After that, toy soldiers were common in North America, just as “it was a rite of passage to get a Daisy Air Rifle.” (Though I think this was more an American than a Canadian thing: I grew up in America and had one: it looked remarkably similar to a real rifle, you cocked it like a real rifle, and it had a cork attached to a string that popped out when you fired.) Many kids used them to re-enact actual battles and she feels that may have helped them deal with the fact they might be soldiers themselves some day. “Play prepares children for adult life,” she says. “And these were one of the tools with which they learned battle strategies.”
But these days, parents are more cautious about aggressiveness in their children, she says; and at the same time, because of improved manufacturing techniques, toy weapons look more realistic, and therefore more threatening to us as adults. Hogan’s colleague, Scott Eberle, who is (and I love this job title) vice-president of interpretation at the Museum, agrees that banning kids from playing war games is more about how we as adults view the world and our role in it, than about parenting.
Our perception of war has changed. When we were kids, Canada and America had recently engaged in relatively morally unambiguous wars and could be proud of our roles in them. Ask any child or adult why we were in World War II and they’d look at you with a puzzled frown that you should even ask. “Why, defeating Hitler and the scourge of Nazism, of course.” But now…? Quick, without thinking about it too much: what are we doing in Afghanistan, again? Exactly, Eberle says.
“You can hardly blame us for being conflicted about our countries’ role in war these days,” he says. But when it comes to preventing our children from playing with war toys, “The thinking isn’t very clear.” He agrees with Dr. Peterson that war games are “ritualized rough-and-tumble play” and bear only a remote relationship to the real thing. “In war you’re out in the desert or the jungle with a heavy backpack; a soldier is confused, frightened, sleepless, dirty, lonely and besieged. The reality of being a soldier bears absolutely no resemblance to playing with toy soldiers in your living room or backyard. When you are at play, even when you are playing at “war,’ you are in control, happy, exhilarated and companionable. Playing at war just isn’t war.”
Playing with soldiers and guns is about imagination, about play. Anyway, it’s innate. “Look, boys will always think ray guns, rockets, and fighter jets are the coolest things in the world,” he says. “There’s nothing anyone can do about that.”
Of course, not everyone agrees with this point of view. Dr. Carl Corter, a professor of human development at the University of Toronto, agrees that while war games and war play probably bear only a tangential relationship to actual war, it doesn’t mean children should be encouraged to do these things. And just because your kid will pick up a stick and pretend it’s a gun if you don’t give him a gun, it doesn’t mean you should give him a gun. “You’re saying to the kid you think violence is fun, is a neat way of spending time,” he says. “To me that is bringing kids into a world I don’t want to live in.”
If he or either of the other boys (whether they “like war” or not) wants to become a soldier, the first person they’re going to have to shoot is me. Which is why I am happy to report that as of the time of writing, the little green men are all gathering dust in some remote corner of the toy room of my house.
Maybe the whole thing will become moot. The kids got bored with them. Kids get bored, they go through phases, and move on, thank God. Thus do the sands of time cover over many of our parenting decisions, which may or may not be mistakes. Likewise it is my prayer that we as parents be forgiven for those occasions when we were aiming to do the right thing, but maybe missed the mark — for our sins, in other words.
David Eddie is the author of Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad. He lives in Toronto with his wife and three kids, has a column in The Globe and Mail and a blog called “Mack Daddy.”