Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life

Bad Guy Games


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.


3 thoughts on “Bad Guy Games

  1. Thanks for sharing this via email, Jen. I know what you mean. I’ve read different theories on this exact thing, and Non-Violent Communication is firmly against good guy/bad guy thinking from childhood. But the most important thing you said above is that, “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.” Julian was once victim to these games, too, which is why we have never engaged in that kind of play here. But yet, Julian plays Harry Potter and Star Wars on Wii, and good guys/bad guys are clearly a part of that. But when he is playing those games, he is playing against automation, not a real person. And that makes the difference to him (and so, us, too).

    I really like what you said about character complexity. I thought the Harry Potter books do a better job than the Beatrix Potter books (lol) of tricking us with characters like Severus Snape: is he good, is he bad? we don’t know til the end! and even Harry himself, or Ginny, being capable of possession by the Dark Lord…just reading these books WITHOUT MY OWN COMMENTARY has helped Julian to see people as capable of both good and evil. Not to mention King David, Solomon, Mary Magdeline, etc in the Bible.

    Maybe yall could play some puppet shows or live-action dramas with the kids in which people are capable of both good and evil, are capable of forgiving and being forgiven, and in which everyone can be friends again in the end. Of course, that simplified, too, but it may help for now!

  2. I think that your blog was very well written (better than this e-mail will be). Of course you know my competitive personality and since I grew up with two older brothers bad guy games were always there (and somehow I was always the bad guy). This is where the real problem is. The naming of the bad guy. For my own children we allow them to play bad guy games, but the bad guy must never be represented by a real person (although we did allow it to be the dogs as long as the kids never hurt them). It has to be some kind of imaginative entity that is their enemy. All the real kids have to be on the same side. Since “magical thinking” is a characteristic of the preschool age group this worked out well (until they grew up). Once the boys went to school (even kindergarten) they started to see real bad guys in the form of bullies, but continued to play the imaginative bad guy games at home until sports became more important.

    Now is when you hear my speech on why I love bad guy games. It allows the kids to prepare a reaction in advance. Then when they are faced with life’s real bad guys they don’t just freeze and become the victim, but can react in an appropriate manner. Children don’t come with coping strategies, they have to learn them. Play is an important part of building successful coping strategies. Playing a hero helps you become one (and playing the rescued princess is not a hero in my opinion). Playing the hero builds confidence and creativity. It would be a shame to stifle either at such a young age.

    I think what matters the most is parents who are engaging their children and teaching them lessons that will prepare them to choose friends, live wisely, and truly be a hero to someone. Kids learn to relate to the world the most by observing what happens in their own family. So if we don’t want to see our kids doing it we need to make sure it is not a habit of our own. And I have learned the hard way, that if I say it or do it, the kids will repeat it. If we prepare our children to stand up for themselves, teach them to have a kind heart filled with God’s word, and admit our own mistakes using them as a teaching opportunity (age appropriate); then our children will be confident and caring, knowing when and how to react.

    Every parent is going to have their own opinion on this, but I am all for the bad guy games as long as the kids are all on the good guy side.

  3. Hey there Jen – finally chiming in. Well I am sure I won’t say it in the correct words – but here is the thing. The eternal battle of good vs. evil is timeless. Whether it is “permitted” to be acted out our not – it is still truth. In fact, by officially banning the good guy and bad guy play – you become a bad guy and that gives them all practice in relating to being “oppressed”. However you continue to handle it, the kiddos will all learn and grow from it. Really, there is benefit from getting to play they way you want and also benefit from not getting too. Personally – one of my goals for my own resident 5 year old princess is helping her be confident and strong in who God created her to be. Confident enough to both rescue and be rescued.

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