Good guys and bad guys
I have had to face a parental quandary recently and what follows is me trying to work out where I, as a father and a man, stand on the issue.
My son has recently turned 4. He has a sweet disposition and is sensitive to other’s emotions. He helps and tidies, looks after and loves his baby sister.
But when we are playing there is one theme he returns to over and over again: Good versus Bad, fighting.
“Let’s fight, Daddy!” “You be the baddy and I’ll be the goody!”
I’m also a fairly placid soul. Even when I’m extremely frustrated I never feel the urge to use my physicality. I’ve been in the Armed Forces for 10 years now and I’ve had a number of experiences in that time that make me want to teach the next generation the importance of understanding, listening and loving one another. I want to equip my son, and daughter, with the confidence to suppress the urge to emotionally lash out and instead to analyse their situations rationally and calmly. We discipline calmly and rationally in our house, we very rarely have to raise our voices and I must say, it has been working well so far.
Therefore I’m uneasy when the game is “let’s kill all the bad guys!”
I don’t like normalising violence in play with a 4 year old (or at all).
So where has this trait in my son come from?
I don’t subscribe to the “boys will be boys” theory and yet I admit it is an easy explanation. I don’t role model violent behaviors, don’t glamourise guns, or anything of the sort.
The timeline for this development, as far as I can analyse in hindsight is thus:
From an early age, when the kids put me on the spot for a story, I relied upon the classic myths. When my son’s fascination with mazes developed so did his interest in the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. The versions of these stories, as I tell them, focus heavily on the themes of bravery, societal responsibility, and heroism. The monsters are “overcome” or “defeated” as opposed to “impaled” or “decapitated”.
I didn’t mention that the Minotaur is the result of a wild night on the mountain by the Queen of Crete and I gloss over the fact that Hercules has to complete his 12 labours because he slaughtered his wife and children!
He loved these stories and we got him excited about visiting museums to check out Greek pottery! My 3 year old knew who Theseus was! One day, after he had slept without a nightlight for a few nights in a row, he told his mother:
“I’m brave mummy, like a hero.”
“You mean like a Superhero?
“No, like a hero, like Theseus. I’m brave like Theseus.”
This was all a great source of pride for me.
Inevitably, between the ages of 3-4, and leading on from heroes, Superheroes began to enter his world. I encouraged this. Again I think the values that Superman, “Dignity, Honour and Justice”; Captain America “Courage, humility, sacrifice, perseverance”; and Spiderman “great power and great responsibility” exemplify are fantastic values for a child to understand and aspire to. He got into the Justice League Unlimited and Spiderman cartoons on TV as well as the “5 mins superhero” stories before bed.
I did have one misstep at this point. I bought the Superman.v.Batman anthology that contained the many ways that story has been dealt with over the years. My son then spent a week disliking Superman.
I finally discovered it was because “He is meant to be Batman’s friend but he had a fight with Batman!”
I used it as a learning point to describe how we can be great friends with someone and still have moments where we dislike each other. That it doesn’t mean your friendship is any less strong, simply that sometimes friends can disagree, then be friends again afterwards.
I was happy when he came home from nursery that day and, when asked how his day had been said, “It was good, there were no bad friends today.”
The recent gift of a few, old school, army figurines has been the catalyst for this post. My son immediately split these two groups of humans into the Blues and the Greens. He turned them on each other and set about “defeating” the bad guys.
My wife swooped in for the save that evening. His bedtime story was one about a Superhero who got a call to help the Blue team, followed swiftly by a call to help the Green team. When he arrived in the middle of the two warring factions he relised the two teams had “forgotten they were friends”. He quickly reminded them of that, they pushed their tanks into the sea and went off for a picnic together. (She’s much better at this parenting lark than me!)
Why are Greek Myths and Superheroes OK but not Army Men?
So I had to ask myself what was it that made me uneasy about watching my son fighting with little Army men when I have actively condoned and encouraged his interest in Greek Mythology and Superheroes? I believe it was because, in the Army scenario, both sides are humans. The Minotaur, or the aliens and supervillians, are symbolic. They are manifestations of evil to give the hero someone to overcome. How can you teach bravery, courage or perseverance in a narrative where nothing is challenging or dangerous?
This Good versus Bad dynamic is obvious in the world of comics and mythology. The problem is that, in the real world, there aren’t Minotaurs or aliens, but there are bad people.
The Real World
I have sympathy with the “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter” mantra, I grew up in Northern Ireland for heaven’s sake. I get it! The lines of ideological battle are subjective. However three tours of Afghanistan have taught me one thing:
There are some unequivocally bad people in the world.
It’s not simply in Afghanistan either. I have a number of friends in the UK Police force and the stories they have shared would make you sick to your stomach.
So who is out there fighting these Bad Guys? What heroic Superhero can shoulder the “great responsibility” of overcoming these Bad Guys? The truth is that Superman and Spiderman are just stories, Theseus is a myth. All we have is Good human versus Bad human.
If seeing my son role play himself as a Good Guy, who vanquishes the Bad guys, makes me uneasy its probably because of how close to shadowing reality I know this play is. I’m uneasy because it makes me nervous to admit that one day he will be faced with situations that require him to be the good guy and to fight, figuratively and perhaps even literally, for what he believes to be right.
What will become of my sweet boy who likes fighting?
My concerns, at the beginning, were that this kind-natured little son of mine was splitting his toys into two groups and causing one to conquer the other. Was this going to led to some aggressive, unhinged, overly physical adult who’s only answer was violence?
Kids take samples from many role-models throughout their lives but I suppose that one of the main ones for my son will be me.
That’s when I realize how silly I’m being. His behaviour is no different to what mine was at that age. I am a fan of Greek mythology, superheroes, professional wrestling and spent my youth ruing golf because it “wasn’t enough of a contact sport”!
I turned out OK, I think…arguably… maybe. I’m probably not the best person to ask.
Hopefully, through resisting the temptation to cotton wool my son, he’ll grow up to be someone who knows that in life, like any good story, we all have different roles to play. Some of them are less palatable than others but that doesn’t make them any less real. That human nature is found somewhere within this diversity of characters we all have and that he has the power, and the responsibility, to carve his own positive path through this life.
Watch this space!