When children play “bad guys”: What you can do
Q. Why are children fascinated by “bad guy” and
weapon play? Why do they engage in aggressive behavior?
A. They are trying to feel powerful. Young children have
little power in their lives. Adults tell them when they can
eat, what they can wear, where they go to school, and whom
they can play with.
Powerless children are attracted to powerful characters (“bad guys” in
stories, strong cartoon characters, soldiers, and superheroes). By taking on
the role of a powerful character, children are able to cope with their fears.
In their aggressive and violent pretend play, children try to work through frightening
subjects. They can feel powerful in the process of combating these fears.
Q. What about the influence of the media?
A. We can’t blame the media for all of children’s “bad guy” and
weapon play. All children engage in play that makes them feel more powerful.
But we also can’t totally take the media out of the equation. Experts believe
that higher levels of viewing violence on television are correlated with increased
After the deregulation of children’s television in 1984, many children’s
television programs became 30-minute commercials to sell action figures, toys,
and other products to children. “Half of the toys sold in 1994 were linked
to movies or TV programs (up from10 percent in 1984),” according to author
Diane Levin. “Children’s cartoon and action programs average more
than 20 acts of violence per hour, compared with five acts of violence per hour
during prime-time television.”
Many children’s television programs, videos, video games, and computer
games contain violent content. The American Psychological Association in a 1993
report stated: “Most experts agree that media violence has harmful effects
on children’s development and behavior.”
Even children who don’t have direct contact with the media learn this imitative
play from their peers who do have direct access. With laptops, portable televisions,
video players in vehicles, and hand-held video-game devices, children can be
bombarded with media violence no matter where they are.
Q. What can you say to children who are playing “bad guys”?
A. Encourage children to think of the person as a human being. Some examples: “What
about the ‘bad guy’s’ mother?” “What do you think
the ‘bad guy’ eats for lunch?” “If I make a mistake,
will I become a ‘bad guy’?” “If Ali plays the ‘bad
guy’, will that make him bad?”
Remind children that all people can be good. All people make mistakes, sometimes
big mistakes, but that doesn’t make us bad.
Q. How can you intervene in “bad guy” and weapon play?
A. Consider these suggestions:
Set rules for play at your house. For example, you might allow children to
play any character, but the character must not use weapons or behave aggressively.
Teach children to solve problems by using words instead of fighting. Ask questions
such as: "If the good guys lost their weapons and couldn't fight, how could
they still win?"
Get involved in the play. Take on a role and have your character extend the
play by modeling powerful, but nonviolent play actions and solutions.
Encourage children to talk about their feelings. Take a quiet moment (not during
play) to talk about what you observed in the child’s play: “When
I see you make an explosion with your toys, I wonder what you are feeling. It's
OK to have angry or frustrated feelings but not act them out. It helps to talk
Redirect play to safer, more constructive themes. “Let’s pretend
it’s a forest fire started by lightning. We have to work fast to put out
the fire and get people to safety. Who will drive the fire truck?”
Q. What else can you do to prevent or decrease violent play?
A. Consider the following:
Read books that help children talk about feelings and conflict resolution.
Set limits on which programs children watch and how much time they spend viewing
TV and movies. Remember news programs also contain violence.
Watch TV with your children and discuss what you see. Help children learn the
difference between fantasy and reality by talking about how television shows,
cartoons, and videos are created.
Look for powerful, nonviolent main characters when selecting TV programs, videos,
Turn off the TV or video game and do something active with your children. Tossing
a ball, dancing to music, or making muffins together can be fun as well as educational.
Remember that you have influence as consumers of children’s products.
Consider sending an email or a letter to the managers of local TV stations. Contact
the writers or creators of a favorite show and ask about special effects or individual
Levin, Diane. 2003. . 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Educators for Social Responsibility.
The Lion and the Lamb Project, which works to stop the marketing of violence
to children. www.lionlamb.org
TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment). www.truceteachers.org.
Adapted from an article by P.D. Jolley in the Winter 2003 issue