How to talk to your kids about the Bad Guys

As a mom, I have a new perspective on fairy tales.

Sometimes, we read stories on the couch as a family. I know those stories impact the thoughts and lives of my children. And I find myself feeling uncomfortable with some of our most classic, beloved stories.

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

What does that story tell about old women? And young women? And what does it say about relationships between women? Yuck! 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 pretty face. 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 rescuer. The hunter’s job is to hunt down Snow White and kill her. The prince’s job is to rescue Snow White. Yuck! That’s 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 rescue. And when my husband’s 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 women and men 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 back at me in shock and ask, “Why do they hurt people mama?”

Here’s how I respond. I take a big breath and say, “Everyone’s doing the best that they can.”

Let me explain.

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

Now I have a different perspective. The perception of someone as “evil” is just a way we give ourselves permission to hate. When we call them “evil,” we get to hate them. We love to hate the bad guys. We love it. We roll around in that hate like a pig in you-know-what. Yummmmy.

But what about love? Isn’t love the thing? Don’t all our wise people keep shouting, “Hey (ahem — tap-tap-tap is this mic working?), what about LOVE?”

Can we really love the bad guy? Really? We’re having so much fun rolling around in all this yummy hate-mud over here. That big love shower — it looks a bit frosty, a bit nippy…

So how do we love the bad guy?

(And when I say love them, I mean really, deeply, love them. The kind of love that makes you weep.)

This is how we love them, those big, bad, beautiful, dark bad guys:

We see their pain.

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

> Darth Vader’s in pain — you learn about his journey from handsome, love-sick Anakin to Vader, Lord of the Dark Side. He’s doing the best he can with the awareness he has, and he wears a mask to cover his face, to cover up 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.

> 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 be an unkind mom.” But sometimes, I end up being unkind to my kids, or my husband, or my friends and neighbors. Not because I’m evil, and not because I’m a bad guy. When I’m unkind, 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. Sometimes the pain is so painful we keep our unkindness a secret, to hide it from the world and in some ways, we even try to hide it from ourselves. I used to yell every day behind closed doors, and blame my kids for it.

So where does this problem end? The stories we tell about good and evil, the stories we tell about ourselves. The way we let ourselves be unkind and at the same time get to be mad at others for their unkindness.

Here’s my answer: the story about good and evil ends on my couch 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 and make up. It ends when they tell a story about a kid in school that got in trouble and I reflect and 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 being unkind to my kids and admit, “I’m sorry. I love you. I’m doing the best I can, and I’m trying to do better.”

By calling the problem “pain” instead of “evil,” there’s a chance for healing to happen. As long as we fail to see that Voldemort is a person in pain, we’re putting a stopper in his chance to heal. He remains evil in our hearts, our minds, and our books forever. But when we see that he’s a person in pain, it’s a lot harder to hate and hurt him, and that’s when the door for healing opens. For him, and for all of us.

If we can change this way of thinking around fairy tales, it can change the way we think about ourselves too. It makes it harder for us to hurt and hate others. And it opens the door for our own healing.

Now, does all of this mean that 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, in our own hearts, in our own minds, and in our own houses. I’m learning how not to hurt my own kids with my own unkindness.

If there’s such a thing as evil in the world, it’s a tendency we all have to sometimes forget that people are people, and we all have pain.

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. In tiny moments every day, we have the power to change a story and maybe, just maybe, change the world.

So who are the bad guys to you? Who are you “fighting” with? Don’t just move on to the next thing on the internet. Set down your phone, close your eyes and breathe for a moment. Think about this question. Let it settle into your bones.

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