Thursday, July 20, 2006
Boys, toys and militarism
It's hardly controversial to argue that war and instruments of killing are glorified in our society, and that young boys are a particular target of this promotion.
Just walk down the "boys" aisle of any toy store and you see that a huge proportion of toys are military-themed or military-related. My local dollar store, in fact, in its toy section, carries nothing but military toys for boys. Some video games also promote the sense that warfare is fun. And I do believe there is a connection between this promotion of military toys and the tendency of many Americans, especially men, to cheer and support US military action abroad without thinking about the costs to those on the receiving end of US military action, without thinking of the costs to the US soldiers who take part, without thinking about what war really is.
When my son BK was born we began facing the question of how we wanted to raise him, what kind of man did we want him to become. Part of the concern was the hyper-militaristic boy culture in our society, which was reinforced by the typical macho stereotypes foisted on boys from a very very early age.
But then we started to see that our son liked to shoot at things, even though he had no toy guns, even though he did not watch television or violent movies. He found a stick and would use it as a gun. We were quite concerned about this kind of thing.
One day I ran into the son of friends of ours who was about 20. His parents had been active in the peace and feminist movements from the time he as born. He himself is a very cool kid, not at all militaristic or macho; in fact, I'd be thrilled if my own son turned out like this kid.
I talked to him about my concerns -- BK was probably about 5 years old at the time. And he told me his own story. He'd grown up in a feminist, peace-activist household.
Yet he loved to play army and war, he loved to play violent video games. It seemed like such a contradiction.
But he explained that he knew the difference between fantasy and reality. Because his parents had actually talked to him about war, warfare, killing, and militarism, he understood that the fantasies of playing army or playing violent video games were very different than actual warfare.
And as I thought about it, I realized that as a kid I also played army. We'd divide up into opposing armies, and roam the neighborhood "killing" each other with pretend guns. Although there were no video games back then, we watched plenty of tv shows and movies that glorified military action.
And yet, I did not become a militaristic, violent guy.
The point here is that the attitudes of our kids come from many different places. Yeah, there's a lot of pressure and opportunity for our boys to adopt a militaristic mindset, to think of war as "cool" and of violence as normal. But as I wrote earlier in my post about politics and kids, we parents are our kids' first teachers.
Given this societal environment, it's so important that we actually talk to our sons about militarism and war. Of course we need to talk to our daughters about it. But our sons are the main targets, and when they turn 18, the sons of those of us in the US are required to sign up for "selective service" (military service registry).
Given US foreign policy over the past several years -- actually, over the past half-century -- and given the extent to which US military action is glorified in the news, in history books, in newspapers, it's especially important for us as Americans to talk openly and frankly with our kids, and especially our sons, about militarism.
My wife and I have done that. From the time he was little we made sure BK knew what war actually was, putting it in very human terms.
We explained the difference between doing something to defend yourself, and doing something that is closer to bullying. We explained what fighting a war means for people on the receiving end of our missiles and bullets -- not just soldiers but moms and dads and kids. We explained exactly what happens in a war -- people actually get killed and maimed, homes are destroyed -- conveying the immense sadness and tragedy that comes with violence. We explained that unfortunately sometimes leaders, including our own, do not obey the most basic rules of nursery school -- use words, not your hands.
All of this helps make it clear that playing war and "shooting" with sticks, pushing buttons on a gamecube or watching a dvd are not war. They are fantasy. And war is fundamentally different.
Our kids have to know that war is not a game, and that violence should only be used as a very last resort. They have to know that our society tries to create the false impression that war is exciting and fun and bloodless. They have to know that our leaders try to deceive us into believing that we are always justified to use bombs and guns.
Of course BK has a lot of non-violent toys, and he and his friends do a lot of other kinds of play that does not involve war or guns. But when BK plays army, when he plays with his plastic army guys, when he and his friends -- including a good friend whose parents are feminist and pacifist and pretty much on the same page as we are on those issues -- have gunfights, with sticks, with supersoakers, with toy guns (yes, BK somehow has a toy revolver, the kind I had as a kid, and his friends do too), he understands that this is not war.
BK plays with the toys, but he understands that the reality of war is not a game.
Cross-posted at daddychip2