Good Boys vs. Bad Guys
Dear Amy, she who is raising 3 boys with a healthy appreciation of Star Wars, I am in need of guidance:
My twin boys are nearly 3 and half, and have recently developed an obsession with “bad guys” and being bad guys in particular. This can take many forms. In its most benign, they crash play cars into other play cars. But it escalates — riding their bike into their brother, using toy cars to bonk each other, “capturing” each other around the neck etc all with the excuse of “it’s a bad guy” or “but, I’m a bad guy!”
We have a pretty basic approach to discipline. If you hurt someone, you ask how to make them feel better, do that and then you take a break in your room. We also have talked about what is a bad guy (someone who makes bad choices and doesn’t fix their mistakes) and what happens to bad guys (they get taken to jail with no comfortable beds and no blankies). I think we’ve made it clear bad guys are not welcome in our house.
I know on some level, this is how little people work out their fears. They play pretend to help work out all their feelings. But hurting each other (or FTLOG, other kids) in the name of play is not acceptable. I’m wondering how to guide their play a little bit to allow for some “bad guys” stuff, but avoid them actually hurting each other. And I also realize this is just a stage, but I need to stay sane, and keep everyone safe in the middle of it.
Our TV habits tend to the preschool shows, but we have watched a few movies with “bad guys” (Cars 2, I’m glaring at you), but we have avoided non-Disney versions of bad guys.
This is a really, really good question, and one that I think a lot of us mothers have struggled with, usually from across the room while our sweet innocent baby boys beat on each other with pool noodles, right as one of them suddenly goes from gleeful squealing to furious wailing because HE HURT ME, MOMMY.
Repeat after me, though: It’s just play. It really, really is just play. They aren’t really bad guys, they don’t want to be bad guys, they absolutely will not grow up to be bad guys. But pretending to be bad buys is fun, and in play, it’s a safe, developmentally appropriate place for them to explore fears, wishes, fantasies, etc. Figuring out the boundaries between what’s real and what’s imaginary. Playing “bad guys vs. good guy” is EXACTLY the kind of imaginative pretend power play your boys are supposed to be doing at this age.
…Says the mother of one boy who was still lining up trains and then refusing to make them go anywhere at three years old. The day he cautiously picked up a toy lightsaber and pretended to “fight” with it was a day of celebration. And the day I learned to take a much-needed chill pill about my boys and how they play and roughhouse.
Honestly, I don’t think the physical escalation in your boys’ play is THAT related to WHAT they’re playing. It’s just…what they DO, even without the hero/villain concepts in place. They get excited and their little bodies get away from their brains and suddenly “consequences” (either for themselves or for others) aren’t part of the processing program, nor is listening to their mother’s nagging voice from the sidelines warning them that “SOMEBODY IS GOING TO GET HURT.”
The other day Noah was outside riding his bike with a neighbor. They were not playing anything more elaborate than a “race.” No good guys, no bad guys, just “let’s race.” I’m not entirely sure there was a real set start and end point or if it was just whoever got to an indeterminate point first. And then another spot. Okay, again! And after awhile, it devolved into chaos and ended with someone deliberately crashing his bike into the other. (No one was hurt, but obviously could have been. HELMETS, people. ALWAYS.)
Were they fighting? Were they angry? Nope. Just doing whatever it took to win “the race.” We had a little talk about cheating, good sportsmanship and not hurting our friends (that probably went in one ear and out the other) and then sent them off again. The excitement level had been mercifully reset and the game resumed at a less frantic pace.
And that’s the big difference: Your boys are getting roughed up during play, but aren’t deliberately, calmly going up to each other and hurting the other on purpose. They aren’t riding their bikes over the cat just because, or bullying kids at preschool. THAT’S what “bad guys” do. Stuff that happens in play when one or both of them are clearly not thinking about the consequences or INTENDING to hurt the other…well. It happens. And it’ll happen again, until they develop better self-control and more mature social skills (i.e. he won’t want to play with me if I’m too rough and not careful and that would be bad for me).
We don’t punish over anything we feel was done accidentally. You must say you are sorry, even if you didn’t “mean it,” and do the “let’s make him feel better” thing. But if I was sending someone to their room every time the other one decided to wail and cry and accuse the other of hurting them, gah. They would ALWAYS be in their room. I used to enforce a lot more time-outs — especially for Noah, since I thought he needed the break to reset and get his body back under control — but then figured out that Ezra would basically shriek over NOTHING and get Noah “in trouble”…just so he could get custody of whatever toy Noah had. Are you KIDDING me, you guys?
There are, of course, deal-breakers that mean I WILL intervene immediately and separate them and take toys away or send them to time-out. I have a zero-tolerance policy for rough play around or involving the baby. Name calling or bad language. Jumping on and off the furniture. For injuries inflicted “on purpose” like punching, biting or deliberately throwing a toy at someone with the intent to hurt. This can sometimes mean I’m making judgment calls all the livelong day about whether someone “meant” to do something — and of course I’m a nonstop barrage of cliches about “if you guys can’t play nicely I will take that toy away/separate you both/turn this car around/I DON’T EVEN KNOW.”
I always THOUGHT my zero-tolerance policy would extend to toy weapons, but I admit that idea went out the window by the time Noah was five, which means Ezra and Ike will basically always have plastic-y fake weapon toys around. (NO realistic weapons, though, at all. Real weapons are not toys and toys should not look like real weapons.) But the other night Noah wandered around the house with a Star Trek phaser looking for bank robbers while Ezra followed behind with a lightsaber challenging him to a duel. “I DARTH EZRA! I FIGHT YOU!” And then they battled and I knew someone would eventually get whacked in the head…you could see the inevitable end from SPACE, I’m sure…but I allowed the game to continue anyway. They had a blast together. A frantic, rough-and-tumble, head-whacking blast.
I don’t know if I’ve offered up anything remotely USEFUL to you here, but I do hope I’ve reassured you that playing “bad guys” is soooooo not a big deal. At all. And even though they’re using it as an “excuse” for their less-than-awesome behavior in a particular play scenario, trust me when I tell you that kids will ALWAYS have an excuse. “I’m the bad guy!” “He started it!” “But that’s mine!” “I was just trying to save the galaxy from the killer robots and he was holding the killer robot and I had to kill the killer robot and anyway that’s why I stepped on his head by accident.”
Obviously, it’s good to make sure your children aren’t exposed to crazy levels of violence on TV, but there’s also something to be said about allowing the good guy/bad guy concept to be played out for them in appropriate ways. If anything, it helps them define the roles — WHY so-and-so was a bad guy, and what happened to him — and then they can act out specific scenarios that might end in a way you’re more comfortable with. (Instead of the game just going on and on until someone gets hurt, the good guys wins in the end because that’s the storyline.)
My kids didn’t really like Cars 2, but they love plenty of other movies with very clear hero/villain distinctions…and some where the main character is a bit more complicated and may straddle the good guy/bad guy line a bit (Despicable Me, Megamind, etc.). Rather than inciting a rapid desire to take over the world and/or set each other on fire, the occasional exposure to a new good guy/bad guy storyline lets us talk to them about it in more concrete terms: Your boys may sort-of understand the CONCEPT of jail and why it’s bad, but I feel like conversations where I can reference specific characters and actions is more accessible and enjoyable for them, rather than me lecturing and waiting for them to parrot back my canned responses. (“What bad things did the bad guy cars DO in that movie? Oh no! That’s terrible! What happened to them in the end? Who won? Lightning McQueen did? Awesome! That made me happy to see, what about you?”)
If you don’t feel comfortable with any further movie villains, start looking for books that have slightly more advanced stories and plots to satisfy your boys’ interests in heroes and bad guys. Stuff that might fall just short of “scary” and in that “thrilling” sweet spot for a three-year-old. (Am blanking on specific recommendations for that young age though…maybe Maurice Sendak? Some modernized takes on Grimm’s Fairy Tales? Ezra, for all the Star Wars/Harry Potter knowledge he’s gleaned from his brother, is actually quite timid when it comes to “scary” things, so we’ve been reading The Monster At The End Of This Book and The Nightmare in My Closet to work through the real vs. pretend stuff.)
But really, your boys already understand a lot about good guys and bad guys. Right now, playing the bad guy is just more fun. It’s dangerous, thrilling, the opposite of who they are and what they do. And it’s okay. Then by October you may find yourself in the throes of a major superhero phase where they’re fighting because NEITHER of them want to play the bad guy, or the role will fall to some poor formerly beloved teddy bear, who will now be regularly fired at with lasers and thrown across the room into a pit of firery lava.
Do yourself a favor: Always keep a video camera handy. Film as many of their crazy imaginary scenarios and stories as you can, even if it means footage of the occasional head injury. One day when they outgrow this phase and leave all their toys behind, you’ll be so glad you did.
Photo credit: ThinkstockPublished February 4, 2012. Last updated March 23, 2012.