"Mom, when the Americans killed the Indians, that is this set!" squealed my five-year-old ecstatically as he tore the Christmas wrapping off the Playmobil Western Fort.
Oh crap. What??! My head nearly twirled around exorcist style as I turned to look.
In general, I'm a huge fan of Playmobil and I love the way it inspires my son in imaginative play, but even the first Playmobil set we got – a police station – made me squirm as I unpacked the multiple handguns and shotguns. That's a little too much reality for a preschooler. I'm not alone. There was an uproar by anti-gun advocates in the UK when Playmobil released its bank robbery set that stages a violent bank heist. We live in San Francisco where a kid just cocking his finger back in play makes parents nervous, so I cringed when my son started making his Playmobil figures shoot each other. I think his Playmobil cops would be well-served by those head-cams to make sure they aren't abusing their power.
Then a friend gave us the pyramid set, which he had purchased when his son was interested in Ancient Egypt. As we checked out all the figures, he and I noticed that the Arab in a headscarf was made to look like a bad guy. That made us both laugh uncomfortably.
But it was when my preschooler expressed his excitement over the massacre of the Native Americans, that I really realized that Playmobil actually provides the perfect opportunity to teach social justice — through its absolute and utter failure at it.
The box of the Western Fort shows a militiaman aiming a pistol at a Native American while the Native American prepares to launch an arrow at him. Another Native American (who looks disturbingly happy) is aiming for him with a spear.
After the arrival of the Playmobil fort, I tried to explain to my son that the Native Americans were protecting themselves and reacting to the expansion of American settlers into their land.
My kids attend a school where they learn that the Native Americans were forced into California Missions and mistreated. Even in preschool they learn about civil rights and the fight of Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers. So I thought that dealing with this would be no problem.
That first attempt at talking about the plight of the Native Americans didn't go well.
"It's not nice of the Indians to go bad. They should have just said 'Stop,'" countered my son. Uh oh.
Given that Playmobil has a set of a cop busting a shoe-less homeless man sitting on a bench with a bottle in his hand, I have actually been surprised not to see migrant workers toiling away in the farm set or a slave on a southern plantation. It's bad enough that the two African American figures I've seen are stereotyped. One is part of the pop star set and looks like he's straight out of Motown, and the other is a basketball player who looks like he plays for the Harlem Globetrotters in 1976.
I was also stressed when I looked at the Playmobil housekeeper my son had cleaning a toilet, and I wasn't alone. A Chicago toy store owner urged Playmobil on its Facebook page to consider how making the character "a darker skinned woman with long dark hair, possibly implying that she is Latina, or someone not Caucasian… impacts our culture and perpetuates some stereotypes."
While I know the Germans might not have quite the PC meter we do, it's actually flabbergasting how clueless the toymaker is. As if the homeless man wasn't enough, in looking around, I've discovered there is a Hunter's Stand kit with the shotgun toting hunter and his dog surrounded by adorable hapless animals apparently about to meet their fate, and another set with an executioner wearing a hood.
Playmobil seeks to teach about history with realistic sets from different time periods, which is great. And I love seeing how my son processes issues and lessons in his life through his Playmobil city. I've heard him talking about how the bosses at his Playmobil restaurant and hotel pay their employees well, apparently because we've been discussing the importance of people earning a living wage. And one of his jailhouse prisoners was given only a short sentence because she committed her crime to get money to feed her children and buy them shoes, which my son said she couldn't afford to do on her McDonald's salary. And he recently added Google buses to his Playmobil city.
But putting out a set with pioneers and Indians killing each other without any context for the 5-year-old that will be playing with it is reckless. I'm sure not every kid who opens that fort is getting a lecture about Native Americans. And yes, we do live in liberal San Francisco. When my son talks about getting a Playmobil wedding set, I'm sure he wouldn't be at all surprised if the set had two men or two women on the altar. Now that is something I'd like to see, Playmobil.
As for me, I now have to start studying up on Manifest Destiny and Indian removal and translate it into terms a 5-year-old can understand.
Photo: Claude TRUONG-NGOC