Researchers from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand have released a study proving what any sentient parent living in the real world already knows: Lego is no longer the warm and cuddly, gender-neutral, inspiring and creative Scandinavian toy block-building brand we all knew and loved in the 70s and 80s. Nope, in an effort to make their toys more interesting (read: highly marketable) to small, innocent children, Lego have over the past several years engaged in what the researchers called “an arms race” to grab the attention of kids in the over-stimulated digital age.
The peer-reviewed study found that Lego “showed significant exponential increases of violence over time.” Weaponry is now included in 30% of Lego kits and 40% of its catalogue pages include scenes of threatening behavior, battles and fighting.
As a mother, I believe it. We have two boys, Freddy and James, ages 7 and 3 respectively, which puts my household squarely in the middle of what I believe is formally known among sociologists as “The Lego Zone.” At first, I re-embraced Lego in a fit of childhood nostalgia—my imagination dancing with visions of rainy afternoons spent building quirky castles in front of the fire.
But Lego—at least the Lego that’s aggressively marketed at small boys—isn’t really like that anymore. Oh sure, you can buy the loose bricks from the still-available “Classic” line or a nerdy architectural model of the Eiffel Tower, but my kids aren’t into that. They want “cool Lego,” by which they mean heavily branded kits with blockbuster corporate tie-ins (Star Wars Lego! Marvel Super Heros Lego! Minecraft Lego! Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Lego!). The in-house Lego categories are not much better. Nexo Knights, Ninjago, Bionicle and the ultra-girlish Friends tend to be highly gendered in the most blandly unimaginative way—swords, guns and assorted murder weaponry for the “boy” brands and pink hair salons and pop star tour buses for the “girl” brands. I’ll let you guess which kind of Lego my little ass-kicking terminators are into.
I officially hit the wall with Lego two years ago, after my stepson Freddy’s fifth birthday. Unwrapping his massive haul of mostly-Lego toys for his birthday, it slowly dawned on both of us that almost all them were battle implements. Freddy was delighted, I was not. I vaguely recall an assortment of military tanks, battle ships, swords, daggers, spears, laser guns and a Ninja training camp. Starring at his newly acquired arsenal, Freddy suddenly panicked. He knew I had a long-held “no weapons” policy when it came to playtime, but he also desperately wanted to keep his gifts. Throwing himself over the pile of Lego he howled, “Please oh please, I promise to be good—JUST LET ME KEEP MY KILLING TOYS!”
I let him have them—I’m not a complete monster—but I added Lego to the list of brands to avoid in future.
Since the recent New Zealand study was published, Lego has publicly defended their products by saying they are, in essence, simply catering to the needs of the client. Spokesman Troy Taylor recently told the British press the brand promotes a wide variety of play, such as construction, fantasy and conflict. “As with other play types, conflict play is a natural part of a child’s development,” he said. “We always try and use humour where possible as it helps tone down the level of conflict.”
This, of course, is just a fancy way of saying that “boys will be boys” and, in a way, I get that.
But there’s a chicken and egg thing going on here when it comes to toy manufacturers. Do they see it as their job to educate and inspire young children through creative play that engages the pre-frontal cortex—or is their main aim to move as many little plastic bricks as possible by appealing to junior reptile brains? Because any pediatric neuroscientist or clever market researcher will tell you that young children are heavily predisposed to respond to gendered marketing and (especially in the case of boys) conflict-based play. My kids would carve out each other’s eyeballs with their cereal spoons for fun if I didn’t stop them. As a mother of active, competitive boys, I see it as my job to try to temper my kids’ baser instincts and explain to them that violent death and war are real tragedies that happen to real people in real places—and not just hilarious set pieces in their Saturday morning Ninjago cartoon marathons (yes, I let them watch it, but only on the weekends!).
Call me crazy, but my response to my toddler telling me when he grows up he wants to “be a death soldier” so he can “kill baddies” and “explode the world for fun,” is not to run out and buy him a Lego Bioncile Skull Basher action figure (complete with battle bash function, two awesome hook axes and Bull Skull Mask) because it’s fun and “natural.” My inclination, instead, is to ask my friend, a seasoned war correspondent, to come over and explain to my boys what he recently witnessed during the conflicts in Syria, Northern Iraq and Ukraine.
My husband, wise fellow that he is, has gently suggested we postpone the global conflict lecture to a later date, when their young brains are slightly less trauma prone—but my ban on “killing toys” persists. Obviously our house is still full of them (that’s what indulgent grandparents and birthday party guests are for) but I won’t buy them. And I make my disapproval widely known. As a mother, and a former child, I’m disappointed in how Lego has grown up. Surely that must count for something.