First things first: yes, I still have all my toy soldiers. There are buckets and boxes (yes, plural of both) in the basement of my parents’ house, awaiting my maturity to adulthood to be given to another child. News flash: I refuse to mature.
As a kid, I was obsessed with war. In the most peaceful of places (rural Ohio), and the most peaceful of times (the ’90s), I was obsessed with destruction, violence, and killing. Okay, so maybe that’s not how I saw it. Destruction, yes, because what twelve-year old boy doesn’t like to see things go boom? Violence, well, that’s a tricky one, I’ll get to that later. And killing: death did not impress itself onto my youthful brain as something to be feared. Death, as I saw it then, was in the face of overwhelming odds, with your face to the enemy, and those you loved safe and protected because of your sacrifice. A heroic last stand, with poems and songs written after your death. Not a bleeding, broken, disfigured body, as is so often the case in war.
Plastic toy soldiers and toy guns (and the innumerable accouterments of military uniforms from the Revolution to World War II) were my constant companions. I dug trenches in my backyard for my plastic platoons to re-fight the battles of World War I, while taking my cap-firing musket into the woods to fight off the invading Rebels. When friends came over in the summer, we would wait till nightfall, smear our faces with paint, and “parachute” into Normandy, spending the hours crawling through the grass avoiding German patrols. When we would go to the North Carolina coast every few summers, Emerald Isle became the islands of the Pacific as I fought my way to shore. My bookshelves grew crowded with books on war and weapons.
For me at the time, that was normal. In my mind now, it is still what I consider a “normal” childhood. In retrospect, I do see that my fascination with war and weapons led me into the military and was the birthplace for my love of history.
However, I also see that some in modern society would frown on my childhood games, deeming them ultra-violent and indicative of violence in the future, possibly against my fellow children. However, nor I or my friends became violent serial killers, or even killers at all( disclaimer: I cannot attest to whether I may or may not have killed people with boredom because of my PowerPoint slides). In fact, we’ve all turned out to be relatively well-adjusted adults, raising families, getting those weird things called “careers,” and being, well, normal. Which leads me to wonder about perception. Quite obviously, there are warning signs that flash in front of us when a child is troubled enough to consider violence as the answer to his or her problems. But I don’t think interest in war or guns is necessarily an interest in violence per se.
Violence, as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry points out, is not necessarily based on a predilection or interest in weapons or war. In fact, it is most often associated with a violent character that manifests in the form of cruelty, angry outbursts, and intentional damage to property. Which is also true of violence in war. War is nasty, horrific, and shocking, the opposites of what we want our children to experience. Too many children across the world, in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, experience war firsthand, as victims and child soldiers (which is a victim like no other).
I omitted two important factors: I was not exposed to violence in films, TV shows, or video games. I watched war movies, but they were the war movies of the ’60s with highly stylized, impersonal, and extremely hygienic war. I did not fully comprehend the horrors of war until my teens, and then was struck with how people could do so much good in times and places of such evil. My parents allowed me free reign to read almost whatever I wanted (within reason), and so my interest in war was most often turned towards creativity and reading. Which is why, I believe, my mother (sporting an MA in education from Columbia) never tried to tone down my militaristic games. She saw that the outcome was increased trips to the library, interest in museums, and a greater thirst for knowledge. It also led me to realize that there was evil in the world, and that some evil, like the Nazis, needed to be fought with force of arms, and, if necessary, required the ultimate sacrifice. Such lessons at an early age helped me to develop a more mature and balanced worldview.
I do not try to pretend that I can give advice to any parent: each child is unique in their own way. But I would say this: if your child obstinately refuses to go to bed just yet because they have to finish digging a foxhole in the backyard to repel a German attack, then it’s going to be okay.