Raising Good Guys and Bad Guys

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By Shannon Williams | Instagram: shannon_scribbles

The three people in my house under the age of five have been obsessed with the idea of good guys and bad guys lately.

“I’m Batman!” Caden, my four-year-old son, proclaims as he runs around in his blanket cape.

“And Robin!” the two-year-old replies, right behind him.

“Let’s get the bad guys!” they cry in unison.

My husband and I are usually stand-ins for the villains. I sigh inwardly at their use of the term “bad guys”. But this is all so developmentally appropriate, this cop-and-robber-type play, I’m not sure I should step in, or even what to say if I do.

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“The world turned upside down. The world turned upside down.” The kids and I sing along to Hamilton as we color at the kitchen table. “The world turned upside down.”

“What’s this song about?” Caden asks me. His twin sister perks up to hear my answer to his question. (The two-year-old continues on his mission to break every crayon we own.) I pause. While we’ve been singing along to this soundtrack for months, this is the first time they’ve asked about it. Usually it’s enough for them that “My Shot” makes an excellent dance tune.

“Well …” I fumble. I minored in history in college. My brain tumbles over facts and stories, but which ones are appropriate for preschoolers? “A long time ago, our country fought another country. They were kind of in charge of us, but we didn’t think they treated us very nicely. So we fought them and, well, we won.” I’m not sure they even have any concept of what a country is yet.

“We won?” he asks, eyes brightening. This he understands.

“We did.”

“And the bad guys lost?”

“Well … they weren’t really bad. They just believed different things than we did. They weren’t bad people, we just didn’t feel like they were treating us fairly. So we fought for what we thought was right. And they fought for what they thought was right.”

I’ve lost him, though. He goes back to coloring, now singing his own little song under his breath that talks about how “we won and the bad guys lost.” Well. I tried.

I often wonder how to explain to my children the shades of gray that exist in the world. Maybe bad guys aren’t all that bad. Maybe our country’s history is not so neatly divided into victory and defeat. Unfortunately, if there’s anything children are terrible at, it’s nuance.

My own early education largely glossed over the uncomfortable truths of slavery, sexism, racism, and xenophobia in America’s past. History was often presented through the rosiest of rose-colored glasses.

“People in this country used to own slaves, but then we fought a war and fixed it!”

“And we gave people of color the right to vote!”

“And we gave women the right to vote!”

“And we solved the issue of segregation in the South!”

“We fixed all these problems and now we’re a big, beautiful melting pot.”

It wasn’t until I sought out a more balanced view of history that I found a more complete story to our nation’s past.

I wonder how I can introduce these truths to my children. I cringe to think of them one day coming home from school to babble on about the glories of Columbus Day or Thanksgiving. But baldly telling them that, “Oh by the way, Columbus and also the Pilgrims ushered in a period of slavery, disease, and abuse that wiped out the indigenous population” won’t exactly be appropriate either.

Those good guy vs. bad guy interactions my children love so much, resound with a sense of justice. I can’t exactly complain that I have a trio of heroes running around my house. Teaching them history in any way, invites them into the story, to learn more. To find out what happens next. We must begin with a childish view of the world—one that sees things in terms of right and wrong, good guys and bad. It’s a view of the world that, I hope, will become stripped away as they grow older.

My own journey has been a fumbling one to this point. As I fill my bookshelves with spiritual memoirs, I’m relieved to see that others are comfortable with the unknown. It’s okay to admit that we don’t have all the answers and to view the world with a healthy dose of disbelief. It’s refreshing to me, as someone who grew up in a strict, traditional church background, to read about those who have dared to ask the questions and deconstruct their faith, before building themselves back up again on the other side with their faith and personhood intact.

Children’s ears seem made to pick up on the black-and-white version of the world. They easily divide things into good and bad, us and them, winners and losers. Perhaps these simple binaries are the very beginning of opening the door to nuance. As they learn and grow, I hope to keep the door open to conversation and discussion. I want to respond to their questions about our history and current events with age-appropriate answers until they understand that there’s more to the story than heroes and villains.

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Author photo of Shannon WilliamsShannon is a writer and mom to three: boy-girl twins (5) and another little guy (3). She lives for coffee, reading, pedicures, and a good beer. Her work has been featured on Coffee+Crumbs, Kindred Mom, and the Feminine Collective. You can find her working through the shades of gray in motherhood and life over at shannonscribbles.net or on Instagram.

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