I’m not sure where all of this began, but I do know who perpetuated it.
That would be me. And Beatrix Potter.
(Sorry Beatrix, I’m not taking the fall for this on my own.)
“This”, as my title reveals, is bad-guy games. And, yes, I do realize that this is a sexist phrase. Why not bad-person games? Maladjusted human being amusements?
If only the title was the problem.
Bad-guy games are not complicated. Think of every good vs. evil movie you’ve ever seen, and remember the plot launched by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named or a Disney princess’ step-mother. Then picture Princess Leia taking out Jabba the Hut with the very chain that had imprisoned her or Indiana Jones barreling through dark caverns to rescue whats-her-name. Of course, a good movie (I would argue) presents complex characters–“good guys” who struggle with their darker side and “bad guys” who surprise you with their humanity. But we’re not talking about complexity here, we’re talking about two, three and four year olds.
(And perhaps about the state of American politics? Hmm.)
So… Bad-guy, good-guy, rescue… the essential elements, appropriated by preschoolers.
Now imagine that the two female preschoolers who live in my house have been exposed to Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny. Their mother (ahem) thinks that this is much to be preferred over let’s say princesses whose sole purpose in life is to get rescued and then get married, and so she encourages it. In their favorite episode, a nasty, mean badger kidnaps a bunch of cute baby bunnies (in order to EAT them) and then Peter and Benjamin rescue the bunnies when the badger is otherwise occupied with fighting another nasty and mean character.
Sure, it’s probably a little too violent for a two and four year old, but it’s Beatrix Potter. And the girls love it, and their mother has vague thoughts about it being somehow empowering… after all if they pretend to be the rescuers and say “take that!” to mean and nasty badgers who kidnap baby bunnies, won’t they grow up to be confident women who fight injustice and protect the defenseless? Aren’t they becoming stronger by confronting their deepest fears and taking charge of the situation? Won’t they realize their own power and someday avoid all the pitfalls of allowing someone else (say a hormonal teenage boy) to define them?
Isn’t their mother over-thinking this a bit?
One morning last week the girls and I were playing a bad-guy game over breakfast. The two preschool boys who live with us joined in. “Oh no!” I (the bad guy character) said, “the rescuers are here! Run away, run away!” And I did and they chased me and then I gave the baby bunnies back and apologized profusely for thinking that they would be a good dinner.
And then I went back to some grown-up responsibility like clearing the breakfast dishes, but the kids kept playing. It wasn’t five minutes later that one of them was crying, and then housemate-dad come down the stairs. He gently corrected them, “Remember boys, we don’t play bad-guy games.”
Okay, oops. It turns out that there have been bad-guy game situations in the past where one child (like it or not) has been assigned the bad guy role and then the rest of the kids gang up on the poor scapegoated child. It turns out that bad guy games often lead to crying. It turns out that there may be ways to empower children without encouraging them to kick someone else’s butt. Maybe. I’m still learning.
It also turns out that our children are currently obsessed with bad-guy games, and all of us parents are still figuring out the best ways to respond.