Let Kids Fight Evil So They Can Be Heroes: A Response

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A year ago, I posted an article titled, “Let Kids Fight Evil So They Can Be Heroes.” It was among the simplest, shortest articles I’ve posted on the Rabbit Room. The basis of my post was the concept of allowing children to battle evil in their play time.

I quoted Brennan Manning, who once wrote: God will bring good out of evil – even a greater good than if there had been no evil – and the trial will have been an immense good for us. And in conclusion, I flippantly stated, “So I say, the bigger the bad-guy, the greater the hero.”

The comments after my post brought the discussion to a deeper level than I had realized the topic could go. As I dug further into how I felt about pretend violence during play, I felt that I owed the readers a fuller train of thought.

In reading my article, it seemed hard to avoid coming to a conclusion that violence was the root of all of this hero talk. Thats a tough one, because I don’t ever think in terms of violence when playing with a child. I certainly am not an advocate of real-world violence. And I’m sure that if I dig into what I’m saying, I’ll find there are some double standards apparent.

Simply put, I believe in imagination. I believe in kids being kids.

Joe Sutphin

I might have encouraged my child to turn the other cheek, but then played with Lord of the Rings action figures with him, slaying hoards of orcs on a daily basis, and sometimes having fun being gross about it. And in the same respect, my wife and I were proud of our daughter for physically standing up to bullies who were picking on a child with disabilities on the playground. It was hard for us to rebuke what she did. Sure, we could have encouraged her to take his hand or go get a teacher, but I think we appreciated that she believed that some things are worth fighting for. It was honorable that she risked being disciplined at school in order to physically stand up for someone who could not defend herself. To me, and likely to that boy, she was a great hero that day. I realize that a lot of parents would disagree with me. In some countries, kids experience violence on a daily basis. We are blessed, here in America, to have the choice to protect our children from even viewing violence.
army-boy

I raised my son (now 22) on action heroes and army men. We enjoyed great fun together, teaming up to defeat bad guys on a regular basis. I never made a practice of trying to instruct him on real world violence as we played though. It was play. It was an chance to be kids, to battle in unrealistic ways. It is each parent’s right to decide if play time should be mindless play, or if there should be learning involved. I always lean toward the first.

army-boy-2I do think there is a difference between playing with action figures and pretending that evil is overthrown and, say, setting up a model of Osama Bin Laden’s compound with your son’s GI Joe’s and reenacting the real world tension and violence of that raid. During play as a boy and with my son, our “bad guys” were always as ridiculously bad as possible, and we conquered them in ways that didn’t translate to real life. And in the end, we ate some PB & J sandwiches and went on with something else in life. We didn’t go looking for real evil to fight. Our son never once used violence to solve anything. I don’t remember reports of a single fight at school. On the other hand, our daughter played with Barbies, building imaginary families, and she was the one we were more likely to get calls from the school about regarding fights. I did not find that the presence or absence of violence during play time impacted their decisions to be violent in life.

It’s a more complicated subject the deeper you dig. And I don’t think I ever viewed play time as a time to instruct and teach my son once he was old enough to create scenarios and play on his own. I believe there are a lot of people that would disagree with me on that, but I viewed playing, and getting absorbed in a spontaneous, fictitious story as a wonderful thing for a child. I still do. I frequently think back on playing with little green army men with my boy years ago along the bank of the stream in our back yard. I miss it tremendously. I miss tromping through the creek with him, stick swords in hand, as we slay imaginary goblins, pretending to be powerful. Pretending to fight along side of each other.

Simply put, I believe in imagination. I believe in kids being kids. I believe in the innocence of child’s play that does not result in teaching. I believe in turning the other cheek. I also believe in standing tall when needed, and potentially fighting for what is right when needed.

I wasn’t always a great dad in a lot of areas. I failed many times and live with some regrets. But play time was one of the few areas I may actually be proud of, and I believe that’s a road you are given a right by God to pave for your kids.


7 Comments

  1. Ryan Dunlap

    @dunlap

    Really enjoyed this. Having kids spun my perspective in ways I didn’t expect when it came to violence. In stories, it’s hammered home that there always needs to be conflict or else a scene/story isn’t interesting. I think the juxtaposition of seeing this innocent little human who can’t defend themselves elicits this primal need to protect them from the ‘bad guys’ of this world…whether it be from physical harm or the erosion of their innocence.

    It’s hard to tell when it’s appropriate to educate on why violence exists and when it’s appropriate. My oldest is still a toddler and I’m still trying to keep her to Daniel “get used to disappointment” Tiger instead of shows that have anyone fighting each other, lest she puts her baby sister in a headlock. Thanks for the article!

  2. Mark Proctor

    @markdproctor

    Joe, the story about your daughter sticking up for the defenseless resonated with me.  It seems to be part of the age old cry of “defending the fatherless and the widows,” caring for their physical needs.   Perhaps their need for food, clothes and shelter also includes their need for safety from physical harm.  It it does, and if I am called by Jesus to care for the defenseless, then, sadly, maybe it would come to physical violence at times.  So when it comes to that being part of imaginative story-play with our kids, the way we approach it would make all the difference.  When we play the violent part of those stories with our kids, what is my attitude in those moments?  I imagine all of this in the way of knighthood- approaching it all with humility.  Boldness, courage, and humility all being mixed up together in love- surely that can all be done with childlike joy! (Which might be a good description of fun)  That is how I imagine you playing with your son 🙂 Love the illustrations!

  3. Linda Rogers

    @misslinda

    There is a lot to think about here and for me at the moment, it feels like it is hitting too close to home. I don’t have kids, but I have a lot of young friends. At a recent church retreat, I got to see a lot of different kinds of playing. I found some delightful but I found some alarming. I really have no problem with imaginary enemies or bad guys. But when they cast other kids in that role, as happened when the girls had a fort and the boys tried to invade it and violence broke out, I have a lot more questions and find it very disturbing. I know that both sides were casting themselves as the “good guys” and that initially it was just for fun. But the violence turned real, with actual attempts to harm each other, not just to play. I made them stop because we were at a retreat center and there was a “no roughhousing” rule which was clearly being violated. But my questions run deeper than that. What are they really playing? What is happening in their hearts? Are they losing the ability to see the humanity of the “other side,” even though these are normally their friends and siblings? Is it even age appropriate to ask a young kid to be able to see the humanity of the “bad guys” or is that something they simply can’t do yet? I don’t know the answers. But the issue is just not as simple as I wish it were and maybe being able to think about it from several angles will help. This gives me another side to think about.

  4. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    I love this, Joe. This is a subject close to my heart.

    When our kids were small (and still kids!) they were playing at Montessori school on the playground after school technically ended, and I decided to give them a few extra minutes. I stood and talked with a teacher. She began to talk about how aggressive the boys were, and how they wanted to play games where they might possibly get hurt, and proceeded to complain about male aggression. I let her finish and said, “Do you see the little blonde girl in the white dress over there, on the grass closer to the parking lot? Let’s imagine a middle-aged man in a faded metallic-blue Ford with bald tires drives up, jumps out, and grabs the little girl. She starts yelling for help. I run over there, grab the guy from the back, he drops the little girl, and I pound his face on the windshield three times until he is unconscious. Then I call the the police. The little girl runs to you, safe. Suddenly my male aggression has become a good thing.”

    In such a situation, I would not stop to reason with the man.

    C.S. Lewis said each age has its characteristic truths and errors. One of the errors of ours is extreme polarization and hyperbole. “Violence is bad, we should all be pacifists” versus “We should all have concealed-carry permits and pack heat.” In reality it’s all a bit more complicated.

    The tendency toward aggression, anger, ambition, jealousy, sexual desire – none of these things are bad in and of themselves. Right aggression, anger that is just and directed rightly, being jealous enough for people to know God that we pray for them and love them, sexual desire within a marital context – here are traits or tendencies rightly used.

    The tendency toward compassion, kindness, patience – these actions are not necessarily good in and of themselves. We might feel compassion for someone who actually needs hard truth (hard love). We might be kind to them when they need us to be tough. We might be overly patient with our children when what they really need is for us to tell them to stop the behavior immediately. As Chesterton said in Orthodoxy, “The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”

    One of my favorite quotes is from a friend of mine: “God gave us a brain.” And a favorite pastor: “You don’t have to park your brain at the door to be a Christian.” And C.S. Lewis: “If you are going to be a Christian it is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.”

    Anyway, our kids are superhero/hero fanatics. Tolkien’s Frodo and Aragorn, Lewis’ Ransom, Harry Potter, the Stan Lee’s Marvel characters, John Carter by Burroughs, the Percy Jackson series – all these have given us a common language, “This is like that.”

    Because it really isn’t about violence – it’s about admiring what is good, and strong, and fair, and merciful.

    You mentioned the bad guys “were always ridiculously bad.” That’s a good thing. One of the best ways to show the truth or untruth of a thing is to push it to an extreme. When I was eight years old I read the Narnia books, and it showed me goodness juxtaposed with evil. King Tirian and Jewel the unicorn contrasted with Shift the “trousered ape” and Puzzle the donkey. Rishda Tarkaan’s selfishness and pettiness set against the backdrop of the mercy and kindness of King Lune, and the valor of Aravis, the brave, uneducated heart of Shasta.

    They stopped evil by fighting, but also by mercy. Shift dies at the claws of Tash, but Puzzle isn’t slain for his part in The Last Battle. Rishda is sent back home instead of killed at the end of A Horse and His Boy. The Telmarines aren’t beheaded; they’re sent back to their island in our world, or, if they chose, they could stay in Narnia.

     

  5. Jeff Miller

    Ron- Thanks for your reply.  I have two boys 11 and 8, and while I wanted to say “boys will be boys”, well, your post was better.  If I meet you one day, maybe I’ll kick your butt for that ; ).  This line – man, truth for our time – Amen:  “C.S. Lewis said each age has its characteristic truths and errors. One of the errors of ours is extreme polarization and hyperbole.”  – JM

  6. Joe Sutphin

    @joesutphin

    Ron, what a great response. Thanks buddy. You bring such intellect and depth to my ramblings. And, man, out of all of those stories and characters you sited, John Carter is the one that really hits my heart. Burroughs wrote him as such a tremendous man. One who embraced the strangeness of his situation. One who’s earthly passion and desire surpassed the constraints and reality of our planet and without hesitation, carried over into almost surreality of a totally foreign world. He didn’t get to Barsoom and just say, “Well, this isn’t my problem”. He saw injustice, and fought it with all of the humanity he had in him. And don’t even get me started on his undying love for Dejah. Just reading the opening monologue. “I have seen him from my window standing in the moonlight on the brink of the bluff overlooking the Hudson with his arms stretched out to the heavens as though in appeal. I thought at the time that he was praying, although I never understood that he was in the strict sense of the term a religious man.” Once you realize the context of the entire story, this ending at the beginning of the tale brings me to tears just imagining the tremendous heartbreak and unbearable yearning that would take place, standing at the edge of a cliff, looking across time and space to a rock you cannot reach on your own, and the one you will love until you die is there looking back, with no way of reaching you. Man, he fought for that.  

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