TWENTY YEARS ago, my favorite toys were guns and plastic soldiers. I think if the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had been around then, I would have sent Michelangelo to fight Scumbug, drowned Usagi Yojimbo in Retromutagen Ooze and shoved Gen. Traag down the Flusho-matic High-Tech Toilet Torture Trap.
But today, geeky sensitive adult that I've become, I don't think I'd buy my son (if I had one) the Turtles' Sewer Party Tube Awesome Assault Craft, let alone a Daisy Air Rifle, which I know from personal experience can fire Real Dirt.
Hypocritical? Oh, yeah. A lot of people are at this time of year.
'Tis the season for parents to agonize over the choice between toys that are "good" for children -- anything educational, wooden or old -- and the toys that children really want because they see them on television -- stuff their parents consider sexist, violent and gross.
And hypocrisy is rampant. A wooden train from Brio would last a long time and leave room for the imagination. But deep down, dads know that if they were kids they'd much rather have Needlenose, the Blood-Sucking Military Mutant Mosquito. And moms would want to mix and match frilly fashions on the impossible body of Holiday Barbie.
Clayton's Gifts & Toys -- a store that ignores the highly promoted plastic television toys -- stands austerely at one end of the spectrum. The store on Tuesday was populated with well-dressed professionals searching for meaningful play experiences among the wooden blocks, trains, puzzles and science kits. Here, the party line is owner Lillian Wilson's declaration that "Toys are the tools of learning for children."
"Teaching children about turtles in the sewer isn't exactly as uplifting as building a tower of wooden blocks that can go on forever," Mrs. Wilson said. "If they see something on TV, it tells them how to use it. They are copying more than creating."
Clayton's patrons have a clear idea of what is a bad toy.
Frank and Martha Haveron never gave their daughter, now 13, a Barbie doll.
"We just think (Barbie) is a sleazebag," Haveron said. "But every year she had a special doll from Clayton's," said Mrs. Haveron. Toys like the Ninja Turtles are "plastic, and we're real people," Mrs. Haveron added.
A Buffalo attorney buying a Brio train said such toys "make the child use his own creativity rather than having it be pre-programmed for him. . . . If television isn't cultural indoctrination, I don't know what is."
Dr. Mike Blackman, shopping for science kits, said he wouldn't just say no if his children asked for something like the Ninja Turtles. But he would do the incredibly enlightened and impractical young professional thing: take the boy by the hand to the toy store and show him why the little plastic figures might not be such a good idea.
These are the kind of parents I imagine I would be, the kind who told me a little smugly more than once at Clayton's, "We don't allow a lot of television in the house."
But then I remember all the television I watched, all the plastic war toys I loved so much. And I think about my anti-Barbie friends who played with Barbies when they were little girls and somehow grew up to be feminists anyway.
Maybe we're not giving children enough credit.
Those annual lists of the 10 most violent, most sexist, most morally bankrupt toys are always guilty of seeing child's play through adult eyes.
I spent hours as an imaginary soldier who killed people with a gun and as the commander of vast armies of plastic men who killed each other. I invented elaborate rules for war games and enacted battles I read about. This was only for my brother and me. My sister was excluded. I was a sexist, militaristic nerd.
And today I'm squeamish about seeing other children having as much fun with guns and violent fantasies as I did. It offends my responsible adult values.
In other stores besides Clayton's, parents aren't being so dogmatic about their equally responsible adult values. They are choosing to compromise with Barbie, finding ways to legitimize the Ninja Turtles.
"He really likes all this stuff, but some of it is too gross for me," said a mother from Attica, searching the Ninja Turtles display at Child World for the Turtles' Party Van.
"(Children) get a little rough sometimes with this. They get to kicking and want to do all this ninja stuff. You just tell them there are some things you don't do in the house."
"I won't buy the slime that goes with (the Turtles)," said Michele Miller of Buffalo, whose 8-year-old son is a Ninja Turtles fan. Her son does have the Turtles figures and the Turtles video. "You draw the line somewhere."
Toy consultant and consumer advocate Ruth Roufberg offers this advice to parents trying to pick their way through the good-toy/bad-toy dilemma: "If (children) absolutely have to have the Ninja Turtles, try to incorporate them into other play. . . . Buy Barbie, but show girls how to make their own clothes for her."
Ms. Miller did something like that. She turned the Ninja Turtles into a family project. Instead of buying the Turtle house, mother and son built a house with a cardboard box. They used paint and a sponge to give the outside a brick effect and installed real plastic sewer tubing.
"It's really hard to ignore it when children are being pressured by their friends and they see it all around them," said Ms. Miller, who is editor and publisher of WNY Family Magazine. "You turn it into something creative."
Feminists have long criticized Barbie for the phony promise about life she seems to represent, but some mothers in the stores today seem to have a more tolerant view of the doll Mattel calls "the prettiest princess ever."
"The trouble with Barbie is she looks so svelte, but who looks like that?" said Carolyn Ohlson of Buffalo. But she placed a My First Barbie in her shopping cart for her 3 1/2 -year-old daughter anyway. "They need to learn about reality, but I don't think at 3 1/2 you have to worry."
Toy guns are another target of good-toy evangelists. But at Child World, the toy gun rack went almost untouched for two solid days.
A boy just old enough to form sentences pulled down an M-16, sighted along the barrel and fired a sustained burst at his mother. She didn't take it personally.
"Come on, Mike, you crazy galoot," said the mother.
In the end, most parents I talked to seemed to ignore the dire warnings of the Clayton's set. It is a parent's nature to be a pushover at Christmas. Their children learn what to like from television commercials, and the parents comply. Television wins.
"Some of those Nintendo things we didn't like, but we got them anyway," said Mary Ward, shopping with her husband, George.
That was last year. This year the Wards were happy to learn that their grandson in Virginia likes Legos. Since they were going to buy the boy what he wanted anyway, they are glad this year it's a toy they approve of.
Meanwhile, the mother from Attica was still struggling in the Ninja Turtles aisle.
"He's a pretty active kid," she said of her 6-year-old. "I don't really have to stimulate his learning.
"I just try to get him something he'll have fun with."
Television wins. But it may not make any difference at all.
Some mothers seem to be taking a more tolerant attitude toward Barbie.