The season of list-making has begun in our household.
Now that the excitement of Halloween costumes and trick or treat has passed, my children are engaged in the process of crafting and editing their wish lists for Christmas. My son, aided by clever marketing by the maker of one of his favorite toys, has already handed me a list of 20 kits that he would be pleased to receive under the Christmas tree. My daughter has only one item on her list, an art kit. But she adds excitement to holiday shopping by naming a must-have item at the last minute, leading my wife and me to debate whether to purchase it and then to race to the store. If you have children in your life, you're probably familiar with these patterns.
The year-end holidays — Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa — present interesting challenges and opportunities to parents, grandparents and everyone who cares about children. How many items on the wish list do we provide as gifts? What is the right balance of practical items like clothes, educational items like books, and entertainment items like toys and games? And in an entertainment world that is saturated with violent and sexual images, how do we talk to the children we love about appropriate and inappropriate gift items?
I first learned about the ethical issues related to children's toys from longtime peace activists Joanne Sheehan and Kate Donnelly. Informed by their work as nonviolent activists and their experience as parents, their campaigns against war toys were among the first in the nation to call attention to the impact that violent toys have on children. Working with teachers, parents and organizations like the War Resisters League, they conducted research on violent toys, wrote articles and pamphlets, spoke to community groups and even picketed toy stores to encourage the purchase of creative, nonviolent toys. They were motivated by the simple idea that violent toys can desensitize people to the reality that war is not fun and games, it involves terrible suffering and death.
Today, there are many groups that seek to raise awareness about the toys and games in our children's lives. A Boston-based teacher group called TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment) publishes action guides on media, toys and play. They cite the deregulation of children's television in 1984 as a turning point. Today, the United States is one of the few countries that does not regulate marketing to children. Consequently, toy and game manufacturers spend $15 billion a year to promote their products to children. Many of these items are healthy and positive, but others expose children to violent or sexual images, or they encourage too much screen time with television and video games. TRUCE notes that too much screen time can make it more difficult for children to build relationships or connect to nature; it can lead to boredom, nagging and diminished creativity.
This environment means that parents face difficult choices and that they have many opportunities to talk with their children about their values and appropriate toys and games. TRUCE encourages parents to provide uninterrupted play time each day (particularly outdoors) and to create a "screen free" zone in the house. But the task requires engagement by the entire community: Teachers, community leaders, clergy and other parents have a role to play in creating an atmosphere where children are safe, nurtured and encouraged to develop their creative potential. TRUCE's action guides are available for free at www.truceteachers.org.
In Newburyport, I am privileged to work with Kids As Peacemakers, an all-volunteer effort to encourage children and teens to consider what it means to work for peace. Over the last 10 years, more than 2,500 children at 42 schools, religious congregations or social organizations in the Greater Newburyport area have participated in the Kids As Peacemakers mural program, a visible symbol to our community about the desire of our children to live in a less violent world.
This holiday season, take a careful look at your children's wish lists and consider how your toy and game purchases can help our kids build peace in our communities and beyond.
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The Rev. Christopher Ney is pastor at Central Congregational Church in Newburyport and serves on the board of Kids As Peacemakers.