Just Child's Play?

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The sight of a child holding a toy gun can strike fear in a parent's heart, but many moms and dads are re-examining their attitude toward children's war-related play.

With toy store shelves taking on a decidedly camouflaged look and America engaged in ongoing military conflicts, parents are grappling with whether or not to allow kids to act out war scenarios and how to talk to them about real military actions.

“I gave my kid a G.I. Joe for Christmas and I never would’ve done that before,” said Jen Singer, a mother of 5- and 6-year-old sons in Kinnelon, N.J. "We have soldiers over there who are dying for us and they should know that ... I think it’s healthy for them to act it out to a certain point."

Christine D'Amico, whose sons are 3- and 5-years old, is more ambivalent on the subject. She doesn't want to forbid her sons from playing the games, but often redirects their focus.

“They make guns out of everything and sticks will easily turn into swords," said the San Diego, Calif., resident. "I try to be low-key about it, but will definitely curb them away and come up with something besides a gun, saying, ‘Let’s make it your magic wand.”

Child experts say there are benefits to letting children act out violent scenarios, but that parents have to be careful about where kids get the inspiration for their games.

If games are war-specific, it’s evidence children are paying too much attention to the news, said John Broughton, associate professor of psychology and education at Teachers College Columbia University (search) in New York City.

“Something has gone quite seriously wrong if children are being exposed to violence on the news," he said.

However, Broughton also acknowledged parents' dilemma. “Certainly, if one were to stop children from engaging in dramatic play, it would have very negative consequences, make them more aggressive and more inclined to act out their aggression instead of converting it into harmless play.”

Attitudes toward war play have changed over the last decade, particularly since the U.S. has been involved in several large-scale operations, Broughton said. He pointed out that some parents opposed to military action have kept military toys away from their kids, but that most parents have gone the other direction.

“On the whole, the militaristic transformation of the country outweighed the pacifist reaction and there’s been a major increase in sales, marketing and consumption of military toys," he said.

Between 2001 and 2002,  sales of G.I. Joe (search) increased by 46 percent, Hasbro (search) reported. And when toy retailer Small Blue Planet (search) launched a series of figures called "Special Forces: Showdown With Iraq,” two of the four models sold out immediately, The New York Times reported recently.

While some parents may be unnerved by seeing their little ones act out gruesome games, seemingly violent play can be emotionally beneficial, Broughton said.

“Usually kids are laughing hysterically when playing with guns, pretending to die, rolling over and dying in agony,” he said. “That helps children deal with a terrifying fear of death, which is totally incomprehensible to a child.”

As for parents, D’Amico said she's noticed two definite camps.

“Some parents are super zealous and say, ‘My child will never have a violent toy,’" she said. "But there are others that thinks it’s OK. Our sons have gotten toy guns as birthday gifts and we couldn’t believe it.”

And other parents who were once opposed to toy soldiers have changed their attitude since terrorists struck the U.S.

In 2000, Singer said she chastised the nurse at the pediatrician's office for allowing a toy tank in their waiting area, but months later regretted her comments.

“I didn't want to have to explain war to my then 3-year-old son,” she said. “How foolish did I feel a year later when we saw real tanks on the highway headed for nearby New York City after the World Trade Center attacks?”

Singer lives in a community that suffered heavy losses on Sept. 11.

“We lost a neighbor down the street, who had three kids and now these kids have no father,” she said. “Parents, especially around here, aren’t as strict as they used to be. Parents are making the realization that this is part of our reality now.”

Still, D'Amico said balancing rough play with down time and discussion about war with her kids is the best route for her.

“We’re reinforcing [that war is] sad, people don’t want this, it makes lives really hard, and helping them see the reality of it,” she said. “Because for a little boy, watching tanks blow things up is exciting.”