"Why are there no bad guys in our neighborhood?" Ivan asked me recently, after emerging from a movie theater. The previews had presented a full line-up of villains – in 3-D, no less.
Ivan had been trying hard to find some real-life miscreants, wondering daily about the boisterous youth on our block, who do a lot of shoving and yelling: "Are those bad guys?" I'd been assuring him that while these young men could be more polite, they're not bad guys. Real bad guys are very rare, I always say, but a lot of people do make bad decisions. We can all try harder to be good.
Today I say, "There are a lot more bad guys in the movies than in real life."
"Why?" he wants to know.
"Because," I explain, "the people who make the movies think that bad guys make movies more exciting."
"And they're right!" says Ivan, triumphantly.
They are right, of course. The preschooler's bad guy fascination is developmentally appropriate, and reflects struggles over control and power, as well as fantasies of being able to kill people, rather than having to do what you're told all the time. It's also about gender identity: It's thrillingly macho either to be evil like Darth Vader, or to save the universe from bad guys, like Luke Skywalker. Ivan likes the "bad ladies" too – he reads the Disney "Sleeping Beauty" again and again, just to stare at the fabulous Milificent, the evil fairy.
Still, teachers and parents worry about the extent to which the mass media shapes and escalates bad guy play, especially since the 1984 deregulation of children's television. For little boys, it seems to quickly turn into expressions of real-life violence, and encourages gender segregation in the classroom and the playground. (Ivan reported with gossipy delight the other day that his friend Agnes had switched sides: "She used to be a princess and now she's one of the bad guys.") The existence of "bad guys" seems to legitimize violence, and the fantasies can shape the way kids see the real world. In their book, The War Play Dilemma, Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane Levin report that children often say, "You have to kill the bad guys. Or they will kill you." Some kids they interviewed even believed that the Power Rangers were going to Iraq to kill the bad guys.
It's obvious that plenty of people – men especially – never outgrow this way of thinking, with dire implications for the state of the world. Most of the elites running our foreign policy believe they're good guys fighting bad guys, and large chunks of the U.S. population have an even less nuanced view.
Forbidding bad guy play – at home or in the classroom – would be a mistake; it doesn't work, and deprives kids of needed creative outlets. What seems important is to keep talking, and asking questions, about bad guys, and try to help kids to further complicate their ideas about good and bad.
Sometimes the point is just to suggest possible exits from the conventional script. Recently I was somewhat alarmed to overhear Ivan's friend Max explaining that they had to kill the bad guy because he had a bomb. I suggested they try tickling him instead. This silly suggestion made us all laugh, and we all enjoyed trying to think of even more ridiculous strategies. The national security state could do worse. Oh, wait.
Here are some awesome resources for grownups on talking with kids about bad guys:
The War-Play Dilemma, Diane Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Teachers College Press, Second Edition, 2006.
Taking Back Childhood Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Plume, 2009.
The Stories Bad Guys Tell: Promoting Literacy and Social Awareness in Preschool, Mary Ellen Logue, Hattie Shelton, The Constructivist, Spring 2008.
And here are some stories that I've found provide mad bad guy fun, and also inspire complicated and fascinating discussion about goodness and badness:
A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens and Brett Helquist, HarperCollins, 2009. Amazing picture book version.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss (Movie or book)
Kirikou and the Sorceress, Michel Ocelot.
The Lion and the Mouse, Jerry Pinkney, Little, Brown (2009)
The Three Robbers, Tomi Ungerer.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Roald Dahl (Movie or book)