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Opinion: Boys and their toys

Media saturation with the war in Kosovo has given my three-and-a-half year old son a burning ambition to own a toy gun. It started with his very own theory about what the war is all about. The 'Jacob theory' of the Balkan crisis is that it is all to do with naughty policemen trying to take the children away from their mummies. Heaven knows where this idea came from, but the upshot is that he needs a toy gun to 'put fire' on the naughty policemen.

I have to confess I have been moderately relieved at this reversion to gender stereotype. Prior to this his number one most wished-for present was a pink ballerina dress, and his number two was a Barbie in a pink box. So it was with some enthusiasm that we plunged into the mass of overexcited juniors that fill Hamley's toyshop in Regent Street, to purchase the longed-for weapon.

But, no joy. A search of the vast store delivered nothing better than a water cannon possibly powerful enough to commit serious injury, but no use to Jacob because it 'doesn't look like a gun'. An enquiry to one of Hamley's assistants revealed that, in his words, Hamley's is a 'politically correct toyshop, and we don't sell guns'. To be fair, he was very apologetic, saying that he thought it was a bit daft and if he had his way there would be far more 'traditional toys'. Jacob was temporarily distracted with a plastic sword and a promise that I would bring back a toy gun from a pressing trip to New York.

How naive. A week later I was having a similar discussion with a shop assistant in FAO Schwartz - New York's equivalent to Hamley's. Except here there was no apology from the shop assistant, just the explanation that no toyshop in New York City thought it was appropriate to give children replica weapons. The expression on her face implied she thought any child of mine should be taken into care before I turned him into a homicidal maniac. As though to underline the gun-free policy, at the entrance to the store stands an exhibition of 'Wild West toys' - cowboy and Indian outfits, Davy Crockett hats, toy 'bucking broncos' for would-be cattle-hands to tame - but not a single pistol and holster, nor bow and arrow for that matter, in sight.

Weird priorities. Here we have a country where Charlton Heston acts on behalf of the National Rifle Association, defending, on television, the constitutional right to bear arms, while children are denied the opportunity to act out being John Wayne.

It is difficult to fathom out why contemporary society has such strong objections to children playing with toy guns. Maybe it is simply that guns are macho and, at the feminised tail end of the twentieth century, boy-stuff is out and girl-stuff is in. Maybe it is because of the misplaced fear that adult behaviour is shaped by child's play. Give a child a cap gun at three and by the time he's 30 he'll be wielding an AK47.

But a kid who sneaks up on his or her mates to ambush them with a cap gun is hardly in training to be a serial killer. Ironically, the fascination with guns is an expression of a child's innocence and naivety. Jacob knows that guns are for killing - but he has no concept of what killing is. He knows that when you get killed you fall down and you are dead. But he hasn't a clue what 'dead' is. He also knows that if you kiss somebody who is dying, they turn into a handsome prince because that is what happens in his current favourite story - Beauty and the Beast. Whatever Jacob associates with guns and shooting is something entirely different to grown-up associations. And whether in his adult life he turns into a Buddhist monk, a hitman, a gynaecologist or an investment banker will have nothing to do with the toys he plays with today.

I understand that it is not just Jacob who is gun-obsessed at his nursery. All the kids are at it. Jacob tells me that they make guns out of Lego, and Keely (the nursery worker) tells them not too. 'Keely says, "We don't make guns, we make flowers"', he says with disappointment. I wish Keely would let them get on with it, before she puts them all off gardening.

Jacob has been appeased with a Star Wars laser weapon - something that bears enough resemblance to a gun to pass his recognition test but is sufficiently different to pass the toyshop 'PC police'. He played with it for two days before it fell into disrepute. He now tells me he doesn't like guns any more. 'Why not?' I ask. 'Because they're not pink', he explains.

Ann Bradley

Reproduced from LM issue 121, June 1999

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