Almost a year ago, I wrote one of my first posts for GeekMom. It was about my then-2-½-year-old son, my sense that he would soon be interested in superheroes, and my worries about how to explain supervillains to him. I wrote:
“… How am I supposed to explain good guys like Superman without getting into the evil-doing, world-destroying bad guys? How do I let him know that these stories depend on bad people trying to hurt other people — and indeed, that this happens in real life, too?”
Commenters on that post had some great suggestions, which I took to heart as I geared up have these “bad guy” conversations with my kiddo. What’s implied in some of those comments, and what seems obvious to me now, is that the best approach to handling this involves “leveling up.” You don’t start with terrifying psychopaths who want to murder innocents or blow up the world, you start with vaguely selfish and easily reformed bad guys who want to “swipe” things or maybe do some occasional hitting. At 3½, my son can handle that.
Handle it? Who am I kidding? He loves it. Playing “bad guys” is now one of his favorite activities, so I’ve spent many an hour practicing my bwah-ha-ha laugh and running off with toys before he swoops in to stop me by shooting a web or using his freeze power. We’ve started reading some of the DC Super Friends and Marvel Super Hero Squad early reader books, and he’s hugely satisfied by the bad-guy-goes-to-jail endings. And he recently drew a picture of himself that included weird lines coming out of his ears and told me the lines were streams of glue shooting out to “stick the bad guys.”
Obviously, he’s thinking a lot about villains, but oddly enough, he hasn’t asked me as much about them as I expected. He seems to understand that a bad guy does selfish or mean things, while we try our best to be helpful and kind, like superheroes. He even developed a superpower that transforms bad guys into good guys who can then help him root out other bad guys to be brought back from the dark side.
As in so many areas of parenting, I guess I was overthinking it. Turns out, villians aren’t so hard to understand, especially in a comforting context where the good guys always win.