Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Teaching Non-Violence in a World of Children's Toys

Among the many friendships I've developed at Fuller over the past decade, one is with one of the semi-retired professors on campus, who I took a Preaching course from many years ago. Yesterday, while he was on campus, he stopped by my office, and we began to talk a bit about Transformers. It seems that at least one of his grandchildren has developed an interest in Transformers, and "Grandpa" is valiantly trying to keep up with what his grandson clearly seems to know quite a lot about. Some of the barriers to communication are the usual generational gaps that always occur when it comes to toys and toylines: "You already have every possible Transformer on Earth!" (How many of us have heard this from our own parents? And, of course, it's never remotely true, it doesn't matter if we're talking about Transformers or whatever...) But some of the issues run considerably deeper.

My professor friend considers himself a pacifist, and so is understandably concerned about children's entertainment with a military theme. How does he teach his grandchild the importance of finding non-violent ways of combating the very real evils in the world around us, when that grandchild's favorite toys all come with weapons and are part of a story of two armies (one "good," one "evil") battling each other in explicitly military fashion?

Although I don't quite consider myself a pacifist, I'm more than a little sympathetic to such concerns. Yet I myself am a huge fan of one of these "military" toy franchises. How do I reconcile these interests? Do I? If I really bothered to spend the time to think about it, I'm not at all sure I'd consider Optimus Prime the kind of role model I'd want my hypothetical grandkids being influenced by. To be clear, my friend wasn't hostile to the Transformers concept. But he is bothered by some of the implications of what he sees when he watches his grandchild's interests, and I can hardly blame him.

But at the same time, with a couple of exceptions, I really don't support movements to have toylines "sanitized" to eliminate such militaristic influences. I mean, it's one thing to be perfectly happy never to have Hasbro release a toy that looks like a realistic gun again, but I see little reason to argue that the tiny "weapons" that come with most figures should be eliminated. I suppose I wouldn't actively oppose such a movement, but it just seems a bit excessive.

Yet, even though I can pull out the "I like them, and I didn't turn out like that" line (an argument I've never considered very viable), how can I not acknowledge that some people do learn their conflict-management skills (let alone the viability of war) from such children's entertainment? Just because I don't support a wholesale ban on anything "military-related" in toys doesn't mean that I don't think anything can or should be done. But is there a middle ground? Would such a middle ground even be an improvement?

My friend got me thinking, but I'm sure that I haven't figured out any meaningful answers yet.


  1. I actually started a thread on this in ATT a few years ago.

    Warfare: Transfans and Real-World Conflict

    Violence and warfare are a part of the world, no doubt, and kids will discover this anyway. The important thing is how parents teach and instruct their kids about understanding and interpreting violence.

    For example, when people get frustrated and angry, they want to hit something, and we are told to find something like a punching bag or some other means of venting that need to physically punish something. And that's considered healthy. I don't think the proxy gratification of violently righting a wrong in TFs is bad, so long as kids understand that what happens in fiction is not the way things work in real life.

  2. Interesting. For the most part, I think I agree. But if you'll bear with me for the moment as I continue my "processing" (i.e., what I suggest here isn't necessarily "what I think," but "stuff I'm thinking about")...

    (Disclaimer: Although I've read your first post on the ATT thread, I've made no effort to go through the whole thing, which seems quite long. Perhaps I will at some point, since the questions you raise there are clearly relevant to my ponderings, but my comments now certainly don't reflect anything said later in the thread.)

    ...so long as kids understand that what happens in fiction is not the way things work in real life.

    I do think that this point is valid, and is certainly the kind of thing that allows me to enjoy, say, Wile E. Coyote falling off of a cliff, despite the obvious violence inherent in such an action. In the case of TFs, the line is perhaps a bit muddier. Although war between giant robots is clearly fiction, war between opposing factions is not. At some level, we want people (kids and otherwise) to be able to relate the stories we tell to "reality." The question becomes where to draw the line.

    Indeed, to bring up a question I've pondered many times, the existence of evil people is very much a reality. Even if I may not adopt, say, George W. Bush's attitude when it comes to opposing "evildoers," I'm by no means ready to say that evildoers shouldn't be opposed. In fact, it is this very problem that prevents me from wholeheartedly accepting the "pacifist" agenda. Even if we don't want our kids picking up deadly weapons (or, at least, not until they can get proper training, to take the "military" side for just a moment), we do want them to know that evil can, and must, be overcome.

    Of course, I haven't even addressed the very real questions of what constitutes "good" and "evil" in the first place. There are certainly those who would argue that, by picking up deadly weapons, the opposition has become just as "evil" as the force being opposed.

    Side-track: Forgive the indulgence, but when I read your (well argued) thoughts about punching bags and appropriate means of venting, I can't help but think of the Mister Rogers song, "What Do You Do With the Mad that You Feel?"

    Anyway, thanks for the link. I look forward to looking through the thoughts there more fully.



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