I still remember him now. His ice-cold stare, the raised scar on one cheek and his woolly jumpsuit with matching hat and pom-pom. My Action Man was a double-hard killing machine, even if Granny did make his clothes. Together we launched dawn-till-dusk raids, carried out despicable atrocities and violated at least one peace-time treaty with the help of his gigantic rocket-firing tank. Action Man wasn’t the only one packing heat. I had a cache of pistols, western shooters, automatic hand guns and machine guns that I used to wage endless war on my older brother, fighting pitched battles for hours at a time.
But nevertheless, when my son’s fascination with military hardware, soldiers and guns developed, I worried. The idea of letting war toys (no matter how well-dressed) into the family home and into his innocent little psyche felt wrong. The ban, quietly imposed, then rigorously defended for months, finally came after one particularly prim carer questioned my then four-year-old son’s fascination with weaponry – she said she had, “Never known anything quite like it.”
She even suggested to my wife that we should let him fire a real gun or expose him to images of what a gun can do.
Instead, his gun was removed and hidden from view. When he did ask for it, sometimes at hourly intervals, we patiently tried to explain the damage real guns could do.
“No, we don’t like guns in the house because they hurt people”; “People get killed when they are shot, which is really sad”; “You don’t need a gun to be a palaeontologist. Not even to kill dinosaurs.”
The justifications, delivered to an increasingly bemused audience, weren’t just reserved for the guns and military toys we had taken away, or those that inevitably surfaced as the result of playing at otherchildren‘s houses. In the days and weeks after the ceasefire, sticks, Lego, pencils, carrots and even intricately nibbled toast all became serviceable firearms. We were not just parents, we were a nagging Nato force, constantly stopping or criticising play we felt was too aggressive or that jarred with our perception of what a child’s game should be.
We weren’t alone. Many friends were involved in a similar war of attrition with their children. Although some admitted they had given up trying to stem the flow of firepower into their homes, many more said they were determined to continue the blockade and had even turned away gifts of guns and Action Man. But in both camps there was a sense that replica guns and war figures crossed a line that lightsabres, bows and arrows and swords did not. There was a sense that this wasn’t just play but a representation of violence in society from which children should be protected. One friend, who spent time in a favela in Brazil, said she had often watched children playing with guns in the street. “A community leader I worked with said: ‘I keep telling parents that it’s not play, it’s practice.'”
It’s this fear of a strong link between military toys and aggression in adulthood that has recently caused so much alarm in places such as Pakistan where the sale of realistic toy weapons has increased dramatically. News reports suggest the children are re-enacting targeted attacks and gang-killings.
But despite my unease, I couldn’t help feeling that our ban was unfair. Not only did our weapons sanction seem hypocritical – given the intense joy both my wife and I had gained from our own military toys – but also it felt that by criticising our son’s play we were, in a way, criticising him. It was clear that his bullet-riddled scenarios were being driven by an incredible imagination; a creativity that could devise phenomenal war games and mastermind fantastical adventures. To check this imaginative outlet at every turn seemed at best churlish and at worse damaging. Indeed, much-publicised research carried out by London Metropolitan University 10 years ago suggested just that – children who are constantly told off while acting out superheroes or during military play become withdrawn and dispirited.
We resolved that the next time our son or his younger sister asked for a gun, we would surrender. Action Man could come back in from the cold.
For Klaus Dodds, professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London, the topics our family is wrestling with are nothing new, personally and academically. Dodds has just started a project with four other academics, examining historical and contemporary play with Action Man over the last 40 years. He believes that parental concern with weapons, which also loomed large in the 1980s and early 90s, masks a bigger issue.
“I think we have a series of moral panics about war toys and childhood. If it’s not war toys it’s the sexualisation of young girls or video games. I think underlying all of that is a long-standing anxiety about childhood and what it represents. On the other hand there is a kind of anxiety that expresses itself through war toys about Britain and its relationship with militarism. We are a country addicted to war. We are a highly militarised society and I think children and the relationship to toys is one aspect of that broader debate about what Britain is and represents.
“Certain kinds of toys,” adds Dodds, “whether it is Action Man or rifles, have been the focus or the object of that anxiety and that fear about what it is doing to our children.”
The remark resonates. We live within a five-mile radius of a number of airbases and barracks. Troops returning from Afghanistan regularly parade through our streets and just last month military hardware – the kind to really excite a child – filled our town square as part of a reservist recruitment drive. But however much I dislike this normalisation of the military and any accompanying jingoism, it feels like banning toys because I believe they somehow represent this system is a step too far. For children, guns and military figures are not magical items invested with superpowers, they are just another toy.
Although only in its preliminary stages, Dodds expects that his team’s research will throw up some interesting insights on how military toys are actually played with by boys and girls. He believes it will show that Action Man is not the sole preserve of boys and especially within mixed households will often be incorporated into non-military, non-aggressive games.
“One of the things that is interesting is how quickly play can mutate,” Dodds says. “Going from playing with guns and Action Man, it quickly goes to other types of play – about saving somebody, it becomes more humanitarian. The guns themselves and the war toys in general are part and parcel of a repertoire of broader play.”
Furthermore, evidence that playing with guns or Action Man can lead to a career of violence or the carrying out of appalling acts is not borne out. Even in places caught up in the “war on terror” or affected by sectarian violence such as Pakistan, researchers believe the emphasis on military play is wrongheaded. “You could talk about the way toys are incredibly important for helping children think through trauma,” says Dodds.
“War toys, on the one hand, can be associated with joy, with pleasure, imagination. They can also be used to help children talk about trauma, particularly when guns have been involved. There is some interesting research going on in a variety of places that have looked at play and toys as a way of coping with post-traumatic stress.”
My children have now had their guns for a month. At the first opportunity, they both excitedly chose western-style shooters that came with a holster and sheriff badge and for two days they shot everything that moved. But despite their initial enthusiasm, probably fuelled by a fear that Mum and Dad would come to their senses, the weapons are now rarely seen. My three-year-old daughter’s gun was last spotted being used as a cake icer, while I found my son’s lying unused and unloved under his bed. It brought home another salient point. If you really want to give something superhuman powers and create an object of obsession and fantasy – ban it.
Published in The Guardian on April 26, 2014.