When Good Kids Play the Bad Guy

Power play helps kids feel in control of their world.



It can be unsettling to see your 4-year-old bite his cookie into the shape of a gun, point it into the air, and shout, "Pow! Pow!" But "good guy versus bad guy" play is a natural part of your child's social and moral growth. Indeed, it's common for dramatic play to center around themes of good and bad, friends and enemies, power and vulnerability, particularly as young children work to learn the difference between right and wrong, to understand rules, and to control their impulses. Power play helps them make sense of these confusing issues and gain a better understanding of themselves and their place in the world.

When your child acts out good and bad roles, he is actually trying on power from both perspectives: the frightening negative aspects of the bad guy and the heartening positive aspects of the good guy. He can actively gain control over the things that frighten him by experiencing both sides of the power play equation.

Power Play at Each Age

Parents will notice the most intense good-versus-evil play occurring between the ages of 4 and 5, but it can begin at age 3 (sometimes as early as 2) and usually tapers off around 6. Here's how play typically evolves:

  • Age 3: Three-year-olds center play around family, animals, and everyday life. For example, Jesse harshly scolded her teddy bear for spilling a cup of milk. Her parents never scolded her in that way, but she was using exaggeration — a technique often used by children — to extinguish a fear or gain control of a deep emotion. Also of note is that at 3, a child's grasp of reality and fantasy is still somewhat blurry, so some children might refuse to play a bad witch or monster because they believe they'll turn into one. Instead they will opt to be a good guy. 
  • Age 4: At this age, children show a preference for real and storybook heroes. You might have noticed an increased interest in real-life heroes such as firefighters and police officers. Particularly since September 11, 2001, rescue workers have become the "superheroes" of choice for 4s, 5s, and 6s. Around the United States, we have seen how children's dramatic play became a therapeutic way to work out their fears — as well as their hopes. This type of play is a great opportunity to help your child see that power and heroism come from using one's mind. 
  • Ages 5 and 6: Imaginary heroes (often superheroes seen on TV or in movies) appeal. You may notice that kids' roles are absolute: A child will choose to be either the good guy or the bad guy — there's no in-between. For example, during a play date, 5-year-old Billy suggests that he and Ian play Spiderman. "You be Spiderman," says Billy, "and I'll be the Green Goblin." After settling on the roles, the two boys excitedly burst into a pretend chase scene around the backyard. It is apparent by watching their body language who is the hero and who is the bad guy. Billy as Green Goblin is surreptitious, while Ian as Spiderman triumphantly strides across the yard. Not only do they know their roles, but they also grasp the underlying emotional state of each character!

The main evolution centers around a child's ability to separate what is real and pretend. Older children can quickly shift out of a pretend role to a real one because they know the difference — in fact, 5s and 6s love to switch between the two.

Using Power Play to Address Fears

Although power play is natural, it is important to have frequent discussions with your child about the meaning of real and pretend and keep the lines of communication open so he'll know that when he is worried, he can come to you. Here are some ways to assure your child that his feelings of anger or fear are normal and manageable:

  • Set rules about superhero play. Young children are attracted by the loud drama of good versus bad, but parents need to find their own comfort levels with this sort of play: Some ban yelling in the house, jumping off furniture, and battles with toy weapons. You may want to take a cue from policies your child's teacher sets at school.  
  • Limit exposure to violent images. When your child does see a movie or TV show with aggressive action, talk about what is happening and even how it was created. Sometimes a visit to the movie's Web site will show that people made the animation for entertainment.  
  • Stress peaceful problem-solving. Say, "In our house, we talk about our problems; we don't fight them out with guns." Ask a question: "If the good guys lost their weapons and couldn't fight, how could they still win?"  
  • Provide alternative outlets for expression. Clay is excellent for pounding away anger. Or you can paint or put on music and dance it out! A run together around the block can also do the trick. You will be saying that it's okay to be angry, but it is not okay to hurt yourself or others.  
  • Get involved in your child's playtime, if he is willing. This will give you firsthand experience of his viewpoint and an opportunity to discuss his hopes and concerns.
  • Encourage your child to verbalize his feelings. Take a quiet moment (not during play) to talk about what you observed in his play and invite him to share his feelings. You might say, "When I see you make an explosion with your toys, I wonder what you are feeling. It's okay to have angry or frustrated feelings, and it helps to talk about them."  
  • Highlight what it means to be a friend. Talk about accepting differences in others. Ask: If your friend plays the bad guy, does that mean he is bad? Encourage ending the games as friends.
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