Are Bad Guys Real?

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4 and 5 year olds believe there is a bad guy out there, and they are going to get him.

Every year it’s the same play scenario with some slight variations.  Sometimes it’s the police out to get a burglar.  Sometime it’s the super hero out to get a monster.  Sometimes the airforce is defending against the enemy.  Sometimes, it’s a firefighter off to rescue a victim.  At times some unfortunate kid gets targeted as the “bad” guy (that’s subject for another blog entry) but typically the target is some fictitious, invisible character.

Child development theory talks about the importance of “bad guy” imaginary play for children to work out fears and try on different, more powerful roles.  They are given a chance to gain some control over their worlds in these play scenarios.  The scarier and gorier the better.   They create fear to prove they can conquer it.

The wonderful and talented author and early childhood educator, Vivian Paley even wrote a book on the subject called:   “Bad Guys Don’t Have Birthdays”.   Her kindergarten class created rules of play that included “bad guys aren’t allowed to have birthdays, pick blueberries, or disturb the baby.”

Last year, my class was obsessed with the police and putting bad guys in jail.  I finally got two police officers to come in and show the kids their real badges, handcuffs, and guns and talk about how they actually do get the bad guys to jail.

This year, my kids are busily building and setting up booby traps to capture everything from bad guys to monsters to dangerous animals.  They have each assumed a powerful identity to protect the rest of us from this bad and scary thing – all the while gleefully coming up with wildly imaginative, gruesome story lines.

The kids vascillate between doing something really ghoulish like cutting him into pieces and burying him alive (no joke), to something totally ludicrous like throwing soccer balls at him until he falls down or putting toilet paper in his eyes or squirting him in the belly with their water gun, to telling him he must go in time out for 1 billion years.

I told my class this year about my pumpkin disappearing off of my front steps one day.   They immediately leapt to my defense, assuming a thief had taken it (probably true) and for days, their play centered around how they were going to find this pumpkin thief (creating maps and plans), what they were going to do to him when they found him (flush him down a toilet, throw bubble gum at him, trap him in a dark cage), and how they would heroically deliver my pumpkin back to me.  No one is more valiant than a 4 year old boy going after a pumpkin thief!

I once heard a teacher complain:  How do we get this superhero play to stop? And I sympathized with her.  It can be loud, raucous, chaotic, highly intense play that is always on the verge of getting out of control. Always on the verge of someone getting hurt – or scared.   Different kids have different tolerance levels for this kind of thing as they try to differentiate between fantasy and reality – a common developmental theme among 4 and 5 year olds.

It is important to resist the urge to soften this play; to protect the kids from their own imaginations and the danger of scaring themselves.  It’s important to let them play it out.  Presumably since they are they ones making up the rules of the game and negotiating the plot line, they are going as far as they need to without going too far with the fear factor.  They are creating a scary scenario that is benign enough in their own minds to actually handle emotionally and ultimately master the fear.

The bad guy theme is pervasive in my class.  In our morning meeting recently, there was a discussion about how everyone was feeling.  A little boy said – with a huge and mischievous grin – that he was angry.  When asked why, he replied that a bad guy came into this room in the middle of the night and stole all his toys.  I asked what happened next.  He told me that he tore the bad guy’s leg off and poked him in the belly.  Then he laughed.    The rest of the kids did too.

After a moment, another kid raised his hand and asked:  “Are bad guys real?”

I paused, thinking about how I was going to answer this when another child emphatically stated:   “No.  Bad guys are not real.”

Another quickly said:  “Yes.  Yes they are real.  My mom told me.  There was a guy with a bomb and he went and hid in a boat and he bombed people and tried to get away. It was real.”

And just as I was about to respond, after a long pause, another child declared confidently:  “I’m batman!” … to which I could not help but laugh out loud.

When talking about superheroes and monsters and policemen and bombs and booby traps and pumpkin thieves, and bad guys coming into little boys’ rooms in the middle of the night, it’s hard to say what’s real and what’s not.

I told the kids bad guys could be real – but that we had lots of good guys to protect us.   They looked suspiciously at me, like they thought I wasn’t being totally straight with them.  But there is something about the triumph of good over evil that we all hope is ultimately true.

For this reason, I am a proponent of bad guy play in the classroom, despite the headaches it can bring on.  The talk of blood and gore is actually kind of therapeutic for certain kids.  And when the kids assume I am going to make them stop, I just play along.  I am of the camp that this kind of play really does allow kids to master their own fears and assert some control over their little – big – worlds.

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One Response to Are Bad Guys Real?

  1. Sarah says:

    Excellent post Kate! And very timely for my just about to turn four year old son. It’s all about bad guys, superheroes, shooting, smashing and killing around here!

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