How to talk with your kids about the “bad guys”

When I became a mom, I gained a whole new perspective on classic western fairy tales.

Because when I read to my children, I think about how a story is forming their story, how it’s forming and informing their lives.

And do I really want to read my little girl stories about ugly old witches that want to kill young women just because the young women are beautiful? Um… No.

What does that story tell about old women? And young women? And what does it say about relationships between women? OMG. That is not what I want for me and my little girl.

I want her to be valued for her heart and mind, not just for her external beauty. And when I’m an old woman, I want to be wise with my own beautiful, well-earned wrinkles. And I want to teach my daughter (and my son too) that women love and support each other.

And in that story (Snow White), the men have one of two jobs: that of killer or provider. The hunter’s job is to hunt down Snow White and kill her. The prince’s job is to rescue and support Snow White. OMG. That is not what I want for my husband and my little boy.

I want my son to be valued for his heart and mind, not just for his ability to fight or provide. And when my husband is an old man, I want him to be wise with his own beautiful, well-earned wrinkles. And I want to teach my son (and my daughter too) that men love and support each other,

and that men and women love and support each other too.

So how can I read a story about the “bad guys” while maintaining this story of love I want to teach my children? What do I say about the Wicked Witch or Darth Vader or Voldemort when my kids look at me and ask, “Why do they hurt people mama?”

Here’s what I say: “Everyone is doing the best they can.” Let me show you what I mean.

We used to call these stories about the good guys and the bad guys battles of “good vs. evil.” We used to say the bad guys are “evil.”

I have a different perspective, though. The perception of someone as “evil” is just a way that we give ourselves permission to hate and hurt others.

So, how do we love the bad guy?

By seeing the pain.

When I see stories of bad guys, I see ripples of pain.

> Darth Vader is in pain — you learn about his journey from Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader in the first three movies. He’s doing the best he can with the awareness he has, and he wears a mask to cover his face, to cover his pain. Upon his death, when the mask comes off, he tells his son Luke that Luke was right about him, that there was some good left in him after all.

> And have you seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi? In my opinion, the story was written in such a way that you actually hope that it is the last of the Jedi, because then maybe the fighting would stop. The movie blurs the lines between good and evil, and you wonder if rooting for Luke, Leia and Han was the right thing to do all along. The whole movie is pain-full.

> Voldemort (He Who Shall Not Be Named) from the Harry Potter series is in pain. You only get glimpses of it (it’s a little more expanded in the books), but he had a terrible childhood. Voldemort can’t do any better — he’s doing the best he can, and maybe his pain is made worse because they don’t even say his name — they don’t see his pain — they don’t even recognize him as a person.

> There’s a book and a musical called Wicked about how Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz, became the Wicked Witch. How? You might have guessed — it’s a story of pain that began before birth.

> I don’t wake up in the morning and think, “Today I want to yell at my kids.” But sometimes, I end up yelling at my kids. Not because I’m evil, and not because I’m a bad guy. When I yell at my kids, it’s a sign of pain, of hurt. Sometimes, there’s hurt happening in the present moment, but often, hurt from the past (from my own childhood) is creeping back into the present. And moms who lose their temper agree — we are in pain. Sometimes the pain is so painful we keep our hot temper a secret, to hide it from the world and in some ways, we even try to hide it from ourselves.

Here’s one final illustration I want to share with you about the “good guys vs bad guys” story. It’s about the events that happened on September 11, 2001. In the United States, there’s a holiday named in remembrance of that day — it’s called Patriot Day.

When my 6-year-old kids came home on September 11, 2017, they told me, “Mama, today we learned about Patriot Day.” So I asked,

“What did you learn about Patriot Day, sweethearts?” (I had not told them that story yet.)

My son said, “We learned that the bad guys flew airplanes into buildings and a lot of people died.”

My daughter asked, “Why did they do that mama?”

I told her, “They thought they were the good guys and we were the bad guys.”

My daughter thought for a moment and asked, “How did they come to think we were the bad guys?”

I told her, “Well, we’ve hurt them, and those are the stories they tell about us.”

So here’s my question: Where does it end? When does it end? How can we be true Patriots for our country and for our families?

Here’s my answer: the story about evil bad guys ends on my couch each evening with my children when I read them a fairy tale. It ends when they fight and hurt each other and instead of punishing them, I teach them how to love. It ends when they tell a story about a kid in school that got in trouble and I say, “Maybe he was having a rough day.” It ends when I’m driving on the road and I have compassion for someone who cuts me off. It ends when I apologize for yelling at my kids and I say, “I’m sorry. I love you. I’m doing the best I can, and I will try to do better.”

By calling the problem “pain” instead of “evil,” there’s opportunity for healing. “He Who Shall Not Be Named” has a name, and we need to say it, to see it, to see that he’s not evil, but that he’s a person in pain. Then it becomes a lot harder to hurt him. It becomes a lot harder for us all to hurt each other.

Now, does that mean it’s ok for the “bad guy” to hurt others? No. Hurting others is not ok, but learning how not to hurt begins with us.

If there is such a thing as evil in the world, it’s a tendency we all have to sometimes forget that people are people, with their own stories and histories, their own pain, dreams and desires.

I’m not the bad guy and neither are you.

When I think about it, it’s truly awesome (AWE-some) the power we have as parents. That’s why I like working with moms. In little moments every day, we have the power to change a story and maybe, just maybe, change the world.

Has that ever happened — have your kids asked you about the “bad guys?” What did you say?

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2 thoughts on “How to talk with your kids about the “bad guys”

  1. Carmen says:

    I love your article because from what I understand you are trying to teach compassion using the “evil” -talk in the story books. Not entirely related to your article: so do you teach or how do you teach or introduce the idea to your kids that there are people out there that don’t have the best intentions? Do you call them bad guys – as in “stay close to me because they are bad guys out there that want to hurt you?”. I want to teach my 4 yr old about the potential dangers he may come to face. I want him to be prepared to make the right call (run for help or yell “ help”). But how do I do that w/o mentioning the “bad guy”? I read a lot but all articles say keep it positive. However I have an inquisitive little guy so if I just say”stay close to me” he’ll ask why. If I say these are the rules he’ll ask why the rules say that? If I say bc I want you to be safe he will ask why am I not safe? So I gave up eventually and said there are bad people out there so if you stay close to me I can protect you. That did it, but it also brakes the rules of so many psychologists or articles that I read who emphasize the idea of not scaring the child by telling them bad people can hurt them. So I don’t know if what I did was wrong or not but I know that this conversation will come up again so I need help. Thanks.

    • Jeanette Hargreaves says:

      I’m so glad you asked. It sounds like you’re worried because you feel like you might have done something wrong, like you might have scared your child. It’s ok, and your kid will be fine (kids are resilient). You’re doing the best you can. And, you’re so thoughtful in your parenting. You’re doing great things. Now, to answer your question. I think you’re talking about four things. I’ll address them one at a time.

      First, you want your kid to stay close to you because you’re worried and because the world is a scary place. Your worry and the idea that the world is a scary place is coming from a place of fear. What if we could re-tell that story to make it from a place of love, something like, “Stay close to me because I love you and your my kiddo. Your job is to learn how to be a grown up, and my job is to teach you. So, until you’re bigger, our jobs are to stay close to each other.” That way, he’s not staying close to you out of fear, it’s because he has a job to do, to learn.

      The second part of your question is about the “stranger danger” story. Many of us were raised with this idea, but if you think about it, it’s a confusing idea because we interact with strangers every day: the cashier at the grocery store, the mailman, etc. So, as with many of those old ideas, it’s time to re-write the script. I’m going to give it a try:

      “Everyone’s doing the best they can. Me and mom and dad too.
      Sometimes we hurt each other’s feelings, and that’s not ok. So, we say we’re sorry and we try to do better next time.
      Other people are hurtful too sometimes. Even a friend or a grown up might make a mistake and forget how to be kind. When that happens, I try to remember that they’re doing the best they can. And I might talk to them about how they hurt my feelings.
      If I have someone in my life who’s often hurtful, they’re not doing it on purpose, but I don’t want them to hurt my feelings.
      So, I imagine an egg around myself. My feelings are in my egg. My egg might look like cement when I want to be left alone, it might look like a fuzzy peach when I want to play, or it might look like green grass when I want to learn. It’s my egg and it has my feelings, and no one is allowed to put their feelings in my egg if I don’t want them to. They have their own egg. Their feelings are theirs, and my feelings are mine. When my egg is strong, it’s a lot harder for people to hurt my feelings. (This is the concept of emotional boundaries.)
      Sometimes, people are very hurtful. They haven’t learned how to be kind. It’s very sad, but we choose to stay away from them. Sometimes me or my mom can tell when we need to stay away from someone. It’s a feeling we get in our stomach: it’s called a “gut feeling.” Sometimes, I can feel it in my gut that I should stay away from someone, so I do. When that happens, I tell my mom about my gut feeling, that someone might be hurtful. My mom’s wise because she’s had a lot of practice with her gut feelings. If she tells me to stay away from someone, I do.”

      Thirdly, I think your question is about sexual education and boundaries with body parts. From the start, I taught my kids about body parts and they know that there are private parts, that only mom or dad or a doctor can touch, and only with permission. I told them that if anyone touches their private parts (or asks them to touch their private parts), they need to tell me right away, that it’s not ok. From time to time, when they’re going into a situation with a lot of strangers, or an overnight with friends, we revisit the subject. I just speak about it matter-of-factly, and try to leave my own anxiety out of it.

      When we speak from a place of stress or fear, it’s contagious, and no one thinks as well when we’re stressed out. So I try my best to speak from a place of calm, because calm is contagious too, and we can all think more clearly when we’re calm.

      Finally, let’s talk about your kid’s feelings around this subject. Think about how you answer your child’s questions. Think about why he might be asking them. Instead of telling him the answer to his question, do something unexpected: talk to him about his feelings. Like this: “Why do I need to stay close mama?” Then you say, “You’re feeling sad because you don’t want to stay close. You want to run around and see everything. It’s normal to feel sad about that. But in this place, you’ll stay close to me.” By talking to him about his feelings, he can process them and let them go. Otherwise, the feelings linger, and he’ll continue to feel sad or angry until they are addressed.

      This is where parenting is going: it’s called emotional intelligence, or self-regulation. Children aren’t here to be rewarded, punished, controlled and disciplined (none of us are). We’re here to live, honoring each person (even children) in their own personhood.

      Many of us are working on re-writing the script when it comes to our children and parenting. Give some of these ideas a try and let me know how it goes. You’re doing it mama! Keep going. Keep asking for help. You’re doing great, and you’ll figure it out one step at a time.

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