Our precious little boy pointed a stick at his mother, pretending to jab it into her stomach. “I’m Captain Hook!” he yelled. “I’m a bad pirate! I’m going to kill you!”
Not exactly the type of fantasy we wanted to encourage. It was great that he had an active imagination, but we couldn’t help but think there were better things for a little boy to dream of than matricide. Couldn’t he, we asked, play like he was Peter Pan instead?
“No!” he said. “I’m mean! I like to steal!”
It’s disturbing seeing your little angel fantasize about being a supervillain – but it’s a lot more common than you might realize. Our boy, in particular, gets behind the villain every time. He wanted Jafar to beat Aladdin. He cheered for Dr. Claw on Inspector Gadget. I mean, this is the boy who, when we watched “The Prince of Egypt”, actively rooted for slavery.
Why does this happen? Just a couple years ago, my son dreamed of being Daniel Tiger and helping mom clean up. When did my innocent boy start wanting to be a bad guy?
According to psychologists, it’s not that uncommon. As troubling as all this feels, this isn’t an early warning sign of a future serial killer, and it doesn’t mean your child has been corrupted. A lot of children – especially boys – root for the bad guys.
It’s actually serving a purpose.
Kids don’t like the bad guys because they’re evil. They like them because they’re powerful.
Children are incredibly powerless. It’s something we often forget about childhood – the overwhelming sense of impotent helplessness that fills every moment. When you’re a child, your parents feed you. They tell you what you can and can’t do. They decide when you go to sleep. They decide when you play. Every minute of your life is carefully controlled by somebody bigger, stronger, and smarter than you, and you just have to accept it.
That’s part of the appeal of bad guys – they don’t follow the rules. Children dream about the power that we have in their eyes. They fantasize about it.
According to psychologists, this usually starts when a child is three years old. At three, kids often start mimicking the way their parents discipline. My own child, for example, used to send his teddy bear to its room and would it give it a stern talking to about the proper way to behave at the dinner table.
By four, this mimicry can turn into rebellion, especially in kids with strong personalities. They start to relate to those who refuse to listen to the rules. Villains are a fantasy for powerless children, an outlet to make them feel less helpless.
It’s a bit daunting to watch, partly because we still want them to follow our rules. A little power fantasy, though, is actually a healthy way for children to cope with that sense of helplessness – and it’s a natural part of growing up.
To you, it’s obvious that what the villain is doing is wrong, but for a child, it’s not always so obvious. We see Darth Vader choke somebody, and we know that he’s being bad. But there’s a good chance your child just sees a strong man taking charge.
Despite what we like to believe, children are not innocent angels. They are not born with a concept of what’s right and what’s wrong. Instead, they’re born with strong emotions and a desire to act on them. They feel angry when they’re told what not to do, and their bodies tell them to lash out violently. Nothing inside of them tells them not to do it.
Most children don’t develop an internal conscience until they’re six years old, according to child psychologists. Like Pinocchio, a toddler’s conscience is a living, talking thing. Their Jiminy Cricket is you. When your child resists a bad urge, it’s to keep you happy – not because of their natural sense of right or wrong.
When toddlers see a villain stealing on TV, they don’t naturally understand the villain is doing something bad. That’s something they learn, and this is actually a chance to teach it. Point out what the bad guy did wrong and how the good guy stopped him.
Your child is developing a concept of right or wrong that, pretty soon, he’ll internalize. What he experiences is going to affect what gets labeled “right” and “wrong.”
I get worried when my son imagines violence. Even when he’s pretending to be a good guy, he tends to swing a sword and yell out things like, “I have to kill the monsters!”
My worries, though, are a bit hypocritical. When I was his age, I was obsessed with violence. I spent my time running around with a stick pretending to sword fight. My notebooks were full of little stick figures shooting each other. I’d even lull myself to sleep with dreams of killing bad guys.
It’s just what boys do. When boys play, they play at killing each other. It’s hardwired into our systems.
According to Dr. Michael Thompson, that’s only a problem if your child acts on it. “Play and real violence are two different things,” Dr. Thompson says. If your child is actually hitting people and getting angry at them, it might be a problem. But if he’s imagining he’s somebody powerful, his behavior is a perfectly natural part of growing up.
So, no, this isn’t a sign that our children are evil – it’s a sign that they feel powerless. This can also be taken as a cue that our kids might need a little autonomy. Let them see that they can feel powerful by doing good, and this whole villain obsession will just be a phase.