I’ve been enjoying Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderella Ate My Daughter. But she does get alarmist at times, as in this take on 1980s television:
In surveys of parents and teachers across the country, Levin found that, rather than engaging in creative play, children began imitating what they saw onscreen, reenacting rote scripts with licensed products. Whether in Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon, their play became homogenized. Nor was there evidence that their stories were evolving, that they were making the kind of inner meaning out of their dramas that would provide psychological resolution, as they once had. . . . As for guns that are not “really” guns, Levin told me, “We’re fooling ourselves if we think those are better. When you give kids a light saber, you know exactly what they are going to do with it, and every kid who has one will do the exact same thing. There is no creativity there.”
I remember playing with a friend after he got seriously into Nintendo games. Around age nine, I saw him and feared he had become boring, gotten sucked into a screen. But when we ran around on the playground, his games were both imaginative and Nintendo-themed. He assigned us all different colors of Yoshis to be, and we ran around dodging imaginary mushrooms and jets of flame. I was relieved that he was still the same person.
And lightsabers? At the peak of our Star Wars stage, my best friend and I staged lightsaber battles with yardsticks. We were doing what children have done for centuries: playing with toy swords. The fact that Lucasfilm got us interested in it doesn’t change that.
I don’t think my children will become more violent people for playing with “war toys.” (Once again, I like Teacher Tom’s take on this.) And I don’t think getting interested in a setting, whether it’s Greek myth or Mario Brothers, is likely to make them less imaginative.
I guess I do see an argument for non-specific toys. A yardstick can be lots of things, but a plastic lightsaber is pretty much always a lightsaber.
Orenstein also gets into the quagmire of whether to expose children to fairy tales, and if so, which ones. I was raised loving Grimms’ and Andersen’s tales, which my parents read to us nightly, and the Disney movies, which we mostly watched at the neighbor’s house. My Cinderella play involved both carrying tea sets like the Disney one, and sitting in the fireplace, like the German one. (I was deeply upset when my parents varnished our slate hearth, since the shiny new surface didn’t give me the feeling of sitting among the cinders.) I was as familiar with Ariel’s happy ending as with the little sea-maid who “looked towards the east for the first blush of morning, for that first ray of dawn that would bring her death.”
And I’m pretty sure I came out okay.