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Rebecca Walker Headshot

Does This Lego Toy Send the Wrong Message to Children?

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Believe me, I do not want to cast aspersions on the famous Danish toy company that goes by the name "Lego Group." My six-year-old is in love with the little plastic blocks and plays with them for hours at a time, leaving me to tap away blissfully on this keyboard that magically connects me to the Internet. Last week I even made my own first Lego creation and posted it on my Facebook page. It's called the Taj Mommal.

Imagine my surprise, then, when, while looking for holiday presents and blithely scrolling through the Lego offerings on the site, I came across a set for the five- to 12-year-old Lego aficionado called -- are you ready? -- the Prisoner Transport vehicle. It has high user ratings and comes with a prisoner, a policeman and, well, a prisoner-transport vehicle with gated windows. I almost had a coronary. Is Lego normalizing the prison-industrial complex to five-year-olds?

I kept scrolling. Surely there was a tribunal set in which the guards who have been caught raping and abusing juvenile prisoners are held accountable for their actions. And what about a prisoner-DNA set, where our six-year-old scientist pretends to discover that the prisoner doing the time didn't actually do the crime? How about the set designed after the peaceful prison strike in December in Georgia, where thousands of inmates -- black, white, Mexican and other -- put aside their gangbanging to make a statement about the human potential for greater good?

I posted the Prisoner Transport vehicle on my Facebook page and asked for feedback. Some respondents were outraged, but several likened the vehicle to playing cops and robbers as kids and said it sounded fun, which frightened and surprised me. I thought we'd deconstructed G.I. Joe and cowboys and Indians, like, two decades ago. Didn't we all decide at some great collective moment of insight and compassion that war and oppression are not games, toys or other activities to engage in mindlessly as play?

Wikipedia informs us that Legos were named by their Danish creator after the phrase leg godt, which means "play well" and can also be interpreted as "I put together" and "I assemble" in Latin. The company motto is Kun det bedste er godt nok, which means, "Only the best is good enough." And finally, "While there are sets which can be seen to have a military theme -- there are no directly military-themed sets in any line. This is following Ole Kirk Christiansen's policy of not wanting to make war seem like child's play."

Go, Ole. But at a time when more African Americans are in the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850, the mass incarceration of one -- arguably targeted -- group is a lot like war, and thus the Prisoner Transport vehicle most definitely qualifies as making "war seem like child's play." Or, in this momma's speak: indoctrinating kids into a for-profit system that often denies citizens adequate legal representation; strips them of basic human rights; criminalizes them for a lifetime; and rarely offers hope of rehabilitation or opportunity for personal, psychological growth.

Because America has the highest incarceration rate of any developed nation (according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in every 32 adults was on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at the end of 2009), I think the Prisoner Transport vehicle, along with all toys normalizing incarceration, deserves a little more scrutiny. Is the vehicle fun, or is it conditioning? Is it fun conditioning? Is it just a game, or a precursor to what will be expected of our children in the future?

As parents, each of us must decide what kind of world we want our children to accept as normal. I don't want my son to experience elation at the thought of playing God, symbolically or otherwise, with the fates of others. I don't want him to become inured to a prison system out of control, and thus less likely to have a meaningful critique of it when he comes of age.

I especially don't want him to think of himself as either victim or victimizer in the precious, intimate space of playtime. Not because these aren't real representations of real people in the real world, but because there is only so much room on his mental hard drive at the moment, only so long he can truly be a child. Is it too much to want his early impressions to be filled with more productive, hopeful models? Is it too much to want this for all children?

We've discussed the racial implications of black Barbie. Now let's look for an alternative to the pervasive messages of domination and subjugation that are passed without objection to our children, especially boys. I want the Lego set for that.

This piece was originally posted on The Root.

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