ANNAPOLIS – This holiday season, Daphne White wants you to keep something in mind as you shop for toys: Violence is not child’s play.
White quit her job as a free-lance journalist in 1995 and founded the Bethesda-based Lion and Lamb project, a grassroots initiative to stop the merchandising of violence to children.
Shouts of “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!” from her 6-year-old at play prompted the then-36-year-old mother to take action, she said.
White, along with her four employees and more than 20 volunteers in Maryland, organizes trade-ins for violent toys and workshops to help parents understand these issues.
While the organization is most active in Maryland, people have come from as far away as Alaska to be trained.
White considers the project a success, estimating that she has trained hundreds of people and sold thousands of Parent Action Kits, which include research and suggestions on avoiding violence in popular culture.
White wants parents to know that all toys, video games and cartoons have implied messages, she said. And very often that message is a dangerous one.
“It’s, `Violence is fun. Violence is normal. Violence is cool,'” she said.
To help parents navigate today’s often pro-violence consumer market, the Lion and Lamb project issues an annual list of 12 toys to avoid. The list, called The Dirty Dozen, is posted on the project’s website, lionlamb.org.
On this year’s list are two toys from Hasbro, a Star Wars Battle Droid Blaster Rifle marketed to kids age 5 and up, and the Lazer Tag Blast which boasts “realistic firing recoil, hit vibrations” on the packaging.
White said the message has definitely gotten through to the big toy companies.
“They don’t like the way they’re turning up on the list,” she said.
Lauren Kuschner, a Hasbro spokeswoman, said she knew about the list but would only say that the Star Wars Battle Droid Blaster Rifle “allows children to re-create the fantasy from the motion picture.”
But many are worried about the reality those children are creating.
Magic Years daycare center in Annapolis does not allow any violent toys at school, said director Alex Jasperson.
“We find that that kids get too revved up with them,” she said. She also tries to limit children’s exposure to videos, because even seemingly innocuous ones like Pokemon are violent, Jasperson said.
Although White can’t be with her son all day, she said she is confident that her son, now 12, has absorbed her message. He has even come up with his own rules for when he is over at a friend’s who is playing violent video games: he’ll watch, but he won’t play.
Three video games made the Dirty Dozen list, including Super Smash Bros. and Mortal Kombat 4.
Exposure to video violence not only makes kids more violent, but creates other problems, said George Gerbner, a telecommunications professor at Temple University who has studied the connection between violence and television for more than 30 years.
Media violence desensitizes viewers, making them feel as if extreme and unusual acts of violence are common, and it increases the chances of viewers becoming victims, he said.
Before White started Lion and Lamb, she found herself concerned about that connection between entertainment and reality, but she didn’t often find support in the community. That made her wonder if she was just an “oversensitive mom,” she said.
“That’s one of the reasons I started The Lion and Lamb project, to create a support system,” White said.
Her project helped parents this year who were alarmed by events like Columbine and the recent Oklahoma school shooting. Those incidents drew attention to the connection between media violence and real violence, and brought a surge of calls for the center, White said.
“It’s a grisly reminder of the worst case scenario,” she said. “Violence has become as American as apple pie.”