Why Children Want to Play the Bad Guy

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It all started with my five year-old nephew. He became obsessed with superheroes. Every time we saw him, he was wearing a cape. He explained to everyone how necessary heroes are. “I will protect you and you will feel safe.” Really, he was an extremely thoughtful caped crusader.

Of course, his new love of heroes rubbed off on his younger cousins. Soon, my daughter was begging for Spider-man books and Ironman action figures. She had practiced her “Hi-Ya” sounds. Even her Barbies became battlers. Our house became a war zone and attack was pretty much imminent. Except instead of protecting us all, my daughter wanted to play the bad guy. Every superhero we had was corrupted. Cat woman was the mother of all bad guys.  She even slept clutching “Momma Bad Guy” in her hand at night.

At first, my husband and I found the whole thing pretty comical.  Then, I started to get concerned about her propensity for villainy, even if it was pretend. So I took to my trusty Google and here’s what I’ve learned. Courtesy of Scholastic, superheros vs. villains is a fairly natural part of childhood development and imaginative play. “Power-play” as they referred to it is simply a way for kids to work out the differences between right and wrong. Acting out these good and evil scenarios helps youngsters understand and gain control over things they find scary.

As I read more about power play and its implications, I realized that my daughter might not really understand her bad guys at all. The superheros and villains game is a natural one, but it normally occurs near the 4-6 age range. It’s quite possible that my nephew felt the need to play superhero and therefore assigned my daughter the role of villain when they originally played.  Because she doesn’t understand the good vs. evil struggle, she’s continued to assign herself this role. The National Network for Child Care tipped me off to the fact that my daughter might not associate actions with “right” and “wrong” yet.  In the earliest stages, children only identify bad actions with a punishment, not with a moral code. So as long as she isn’t getting punished for her bad actions during playtime, she doesn’t seem them as wrong.

It’s an interesting phenomenon to watch. I think that as she gets older, she’ll start playing roles on both sides of the equation. For right now, I like to let her playtime grow naturally, with very little pressure or instruction. While I realize that its important to make sure she doesn’t actually hurt herself or anyone else, I don’t think playing the bad guy will do any permanent damage. According to the experts, it may even make her more capable of seeing things from two different perspectives. I’ve always believed that compassion was something to be valued. So for the time being, my husband and I will enjoy watching our daughter fight the bad fight. At least it means that I get to play the good guy every once in a while.

(Photo: ThisNext)