When You Hate What They Play With

Grandkids may love their new toys, but what can you do if you disapprove?

By Paul Rogers

Of all the presents that Laurie Anhalt’s 11-year-old grandson, Logan, received from his parents this past holiday season, Guitar Hero clearly captivated him most. The popular video game — in which players feverishly press buttons on a guitar-shaped controller to match notes being shown on the screen — brought out the inner rock star in him.

But when Logan gave his grandmother a demonstration, Anhalt realized there was more than just music to the game’s appeal: An animated video accompanying the song showed male band members flanked by scantily-clad female singers. Logan explained that his "girls" were "backing him up," adding, "They're hot!"

The suggestive portrayal of the backup dancers gave Anhalt, 51, a kindergarten teacher and Milwaukee grandmother of three, doubts about the age-appropriateness of the gift. "I thought, Okay, what exactly are they doing on this video?'" As for her grandson's choice of words, she says, "I know that's how kids talk, but it made me question."

Children's choices of favorite playthings have long stirred up mixed emotions in families — especially when grandparents disapprove of what parents allow grandkids to play with. What messages do toys send about gender roles? Do they promote violence? Are they too closely tied to heavily-advertised movies and TV shows?

Sex and Violence in the Toy Chest

The Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood successfully lobbied children's publisher Scholastic Inc. to drop from its book-club catalogs and book fairs products based on the provocative — some say overtly sexy — Bratz dolls. The campaign, supported by many parents and grandparents who signed a petition, said the toys and books were inappropriate for young children. Scholastic said its decision to drop Bratz products was based on declining sales, not just on the campaign's criticism.

Other toys the campaign considers inappropriate, at least for preschool children, are Lego action figures based on the recent Batman film, The Dark Night, since the movie is rated PG-13 for violence. Along with similar toys tied to recent films about comic-book characters like the Hulk and Spider-Man, the figures promote violent movies and could lead parents to believe it’s okay to take young children to see them, says Susan Linn, the director of the campaign and the author of The Case for Make-Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World (New Press).

"Children use play to deal with their fears and anxiety," Linn says, but she fears that kids who play-act scenes from violent films "aren’t working things through with their violence. They’re just mimicking what they see."

Anhalt laments her grandson's arsenal of toy weapons — including a BB gun he got when he was 8 and quickly aimed at one of his younger sisters. "There's always this undertone of a low level of violence, but it's violence nonetheless," she says, "and that bothers me quite a bit."

What Grandparents Can Do

When Anhalt visits her grandchildren, she generally keeps her concerns about their toys to herself. But when the kids come to her house, she firmly but respectfully speaks her mind when they ask to play with things she doesn't approve. "I'll say, 'That might be okay at home, but here we're not going to do that. When you're here, you have to go by our rules.'"

Part of the problem, grandparents say, is the flood of new toys many kids get for the holidays. Some grandchildren either ignore playthings that have real value, or become hooked on flashy new toys, or both. "When you give children so many things all at once they don’t get anything out of it,” says Adelle Milavsky, 73, a grandmother of two older teenage girls who splits her time between Mansfield, Conn., and Tampa. "They get tired of it in ten minutes and they go on to the next thing."

Milavsky particularly remembers two costly gifts the girls received from their parents several years ago — a karaoke set and a guitar — but then barely used. With those lessons in mind, Milavsky took a different approach during the past season. She made a necklace for each girl and also gave each $30 with a note encouraging them to use it to buy gas for their car. While one part of her gift may have quickly gone up in smoke, the other is hopefully a keepsake that will stand the test of time.

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