• Fri, May 20 2011

Why Children Want to Play the Bad Guy

It all started with my five year-old nephew. He became obsessed with superheroes. Every time we saw him, he was wearing a cape. He explained to everyone how necessary heroes are. “I will protect you and you will feel safe.” Really, he was an extremely thoughtful caped crusader.

Of course, his new love of heroes rubbed off on his younger cousins. Soon, my daughter was begging for Spider-man books and Ironman action figures. She had practiced her “Hi-Ya” sounds. Even her Barbies became battlers. Our house became a war zone and attack was pretty much imminent. Except instead of protecting us all, my daughter wanted to play the bad guy. Every superhero we had was corrupted. Cat woman was the mother of all bad guys.  She even slept clutching “Momma Bad Guy” in her hand at night.

At first, my husband and I found the whole thing pretty comical.  Then, I started to get concerned about her propensity for villainy, even if it was pretend. So I took to my trusty Google and here’s what I’ve learned. Courtesy of Scholastic, superheros vs. villains is a fairly natural part of childhood development and imaginative play. “Power-play” as they referred to it is simply a way for kids to work out the differences between right and wrong. Acting out these good and evil scenarios helps youngsters understand and gain control over things they find scary.

As I read more about power play and its implications, I realized that my daughter might not really understand her bad guys at all. The superheros and villains game is a natural one, but it normally occurs near the 4-6 age range. It’s quite possible that my nephew felt the need to play superhero and therefore assigned my daughter the role of villain when they originally played.  Because she doesn’t understand the good vs. evil struggle, she’s continued to assign herself this role. The National Network for Child Care tipped me off to the fact that my daughter might not associate actions with “right” and “wrong” yet.  In the earliest stages, children only identify bad actions with a punishment, not with a moral code. So as long as she isn’t getting punished for her bad actions during playtime, she doesn’t seem them as wrong.

It’s an interesting phenomenon to watch. I think that as she gets older, she’ll start playing roles on both sides of the equation. For right now, I like to let her playtime grow naturally, with very little pressure or instruction. While I realize that its important to make sure she doesn’t actually hurt herself or anyone else, I don’t think playing the bad guy will do any permanent damage. According to the experts, it may even make her more capable of seeing things from two different perspectives. I’ve always believed that compassion was something to be valued. So for the time being, my husband and I will enjoy watching our daughter fight the bad fight. At least it means that I get to play the good guy every once in a while.

(Photo: ThisNext)

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  • amy

    “I realized that my daughter might not really understand her bad guys at all. … Because she doesn’t understand the good vs. evil struggle, she’s continued to assign herself this role.”

    Thanks so much for these insights. I am in a similar predicament with my 4-year old and I too like for my child’s play to be spontaneous and grow organically.

    Just for background, when my family and I moved to a new town when I was 7, I was bullied quite a lot for a number of years. So, my perspective is perhaps a more sensitive one.

    My husband and I have, however, taken a different approach to good guy vs. bad guy. I don’t recall how it began, but we did make clear distinctions between the two from very early on. We aimed to avoid all the glamorization of the bad guy as I think that’s what creates confusion between the roles.

    My ultimate fear is that if my child is playing the “bad guy” to gain control over a scarey situation, this doesn’t teach them constructive ways to use the power they already have. Like the power to observe what others are doing, acting with compassion, and understanding and figuring out the best thing to do without creating bad feelings.

    Children are entitled to figure things out on their own but they are also entitled to the wisdom of our experience. Sometimes children need guidance when they play. They are not born moral creatures, they need to be taught.

    We have regular playdates with a few children and sometimes one of the children will say or do something that we don’t allow (name calling, teasing, hitting, kicking, grabbing, not taking turns/sharing) and I have no problem telling them that “in our house, we dont do that.”

  • Mimi

    As an Early Childhood Educator of both pre-k and kindergarten students as well as college students I often see children act out super hero play. The number one rule of our school is that “everyone needs to feel safe.” That said, we try to not interfere, but rather let the children find their own way to solve the scenario they have created. All too often I observe adults attempt to dictate the way children play. If adults sit back, wait and allow the children to continue their play they will be amazed at the compassion, fairness, and wisdom they model in their play.