Raising Attila the Hun

The New York Times
DEC. 5, 1988


            You can tell it's Christmas when an endless stream of toy advertisements pours forth from the TV. My young son becomes more agitated with each station break. The ads are strictly segregated by sex: guns and monsters for boys, wigs and make-up for girls. Ever see a preschooler in lipstick and mascara like Betty Boop?
            I used to think all sex-role behavior was socially learned, like lipstick and girdles. That was before Attila the Hun came along: I call my son that to protect his real identity. His father and I are not violent people. Where did all this macho come from? From the time Attila learned to walk, he became more male every day, in the most extreme and stereotyped ways. I had to hang out for hours with the stroller, watching big noisy garbage trucks. "Tuck; tuck," he would coo, holding his little arms out longingly. And all he ever wanted for presents was a gun.
            Now, at the age of 4, he has an arsenal: five plastic swords, one plastic battle axe, one plastic dagger, two guns designed to kill ghosts and one squirt gun. He and his friends were something to see last summer, with their plastic swords sticking out of the bottoms of their shorts. (They put them through the waistband because they can't manage belts and scabbards.) They pulled out their weapons, yelled unintelligible orders and chased each other around for hours.
            Still, I get mail from the War Resisters League saying war toys cause war. Military behavior in the young leads to military behavior in I the not-so-young. So does watching programs on TV in which cartoon characters are always getting killed—though, in fairness, they don't stay killed for long. But apparently this creates a confusion in the minds of the young, causing them to think it's all right to shoot their friends with the pistol they found in Daddy's bureau.
            I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier. I felt pretty guilty for a while. Then we went to the Metropolitan Museum to visit the armor, a favorite rainy day occupation. As we came down the stairs, Attila gestured at the shadows and confided: "There's a monster waiting over there to grab me. I wish I had my gun." I began to rethink the connection between war and war toys.
            If one teen-age boy kills another playing Dungeons and Dragons, does that mean Dungeons and Dragons is an evil, dangerous game that ought to be censored? Or does it mean the kid is deeply disturbed and cannot tell the difference between his imagination and reality? 
            If a little boy likes to jump around with guns and swords, and his parents won't let him, does that make him a pacifist? Or does it make him angry and repressed? And who will he turn that anger on? Himself? Smaller children? Maybe he'll just become a self-righteous little twit, nothing worse. I don't want one of those in my family. 
            I want my kids to stand up for their beliefs, even against social pressure—even if they're wrong.  When we went to a peace demonstration, Attila insisted on bringing his sword.  We couldn't talk him out of it.  So what could I do? I don't believe in repressing symbols. I believe in teaching children the difference between fantasy and reality.
            But many parents do not feel as I do. We were examining a used green monster at a street fair when a mother came up behind me and whispered: "Oh, you're the one whose kid has guns. Watch it." Last week, on the way home from the park, Attila shot a kid in the stroller with his antighost gun. His mother was furious.  “I can’t  tell you what sort of toys to buy,” she said coldly, "But when I was little, I was taught never to point a gun at anybody else." Then she lost her cool and screamed, "So tell your kid not to shoot my baby!"
             "Don't worry," I said very clearly. "It can't hurt him. It's only a toy gun.” We glared at each other and marched our separate ways, two progressive women in the grip of irreconcilable theories of child rearing.
            Besides, I'm hoping he’ll outgrow it.