I have two young nephews I love something fierce, and an honesty policy that often leads to some pretty long-winded conversations with the eldest, aged five. Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny are off limits in keeping with his mother’s wishes, but a lot of other fantasy characters are not so culturally sanctified, so when my Little Buddy (LB) asks questions like “Can we go to Gotham City?” I break the difficult truth as best as I can:
“No, LB, we can’t, because Gotham City is make-believe. We can go to the city it’s based on–New York City–but the real Gotham City just exists in comic books, TV shows, and movies.”
The truth doesn’t go down so easily, though; we’ve had this talk a few times already, and he still struggles to understand the difference between fiction and reality. Which isn’t surprising, mind you; again, he’s five, and Batman is all kinds of exciting and cool.
But the profound vulnerability underlying LB’s willingness to accept as true whatever adults tell him, or whatever he sees on TV, or whatever is simply most exciting, is always unsettling to me. This is why, whenever we’ve shared a lesson in astronomy, biology, archaeology, palaeontology, chemistry, or general history, I try to highlight precisely where my information comes from, prompt him to demonstrate an acquired understanding of how we as a civilization came to know what we now do, and most of all, emphasize that he must never just accept what I say about the world as true if he can check for himself.
(To date, this means we’ve marked out Mesopotamia, the Chicxulub crater, and the Albertan Badlands as places for possible future travel so he can see firsthand some of the evidence available for the long, fraught history of life on planet earth. Short term, the Royal Ontario Museum will have to do.)
And to this end, the educational process has absolutely been reciprocal; many a time LB has called attention to the rhetoric I use in my storytelling about the world, and so challenged me to think about my underlying assumptions. When watching a documentary about Voyager I, for instance, I summarized part of it by saying that this was a space probe “we” launched to learn more about our solar system, and what lies beyond it.
“But I didn’t do that,” he said, a rather puzzled look on his face. “I’ve never launched any probes.”
Quite right. Nor had I, as I readily admitted at the time–and ever since, I’ve been careful to attribute such actions to the persons most directly responsible for them.
So this process has been quite rewarding, absolutely. But there are clouds on the figurative horizon, for as LB grows, his spheres of cultural influence are becoming quite intricate, and they’ll only grow more complex in the coming years. To this end, I’m starting to realize just how steep this battle against childhood credulity will be from here on out–and how much this very particular, very cultural notion of superheros is going to be one of my biggest obstacles.
Right now, aged five, LB wants to be a superhero when he grows up. Specifically, he wants to be Spiderman. On the one hand: “Aw, cute; he’s five!” On the other hand, with this notion of Spiderman comes a persistent valuation of the world as made up only of “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys”–a concept LB is so fixated on that whenever he has a glowing moment where he declares that he loves “everyone” he immediately adds “except Bad Guys” with visible apprehension, as if afraid he’s going to be seen as some sort of terrorist-loving monster by issuing even the simplest message of love.
Alongside this notion of Good Guys and Bad Guys comes a Draconian view of the law, as taught in large part by the Power Rangers: It’s okay to kill Bad Guys. Heck, killing Bad Guys is even fun! It gets to the point where we rarely watch movies together without LB asking me “Is that person a Good Guy or a Bad Guy?” (the sum total of his character archetypes so reduced). And since he spends a lot of time with action hero media these days, the conversations where I have to remind him that everyone is a person first–that everyone was a child like him once, neither good nor bad but merely the sum total of their choices to date, and their desires going forward–keep getting longer and longer.
It’s also a problem because who the Bad Guy is has already started matching up with some pretty difficult, systemically reinforced notions of Other People, as I first discovered when he watched the opening video to Civilization V, where a father and son who have a different skin colour and wear different clothes than LB and I are talking hopefully about the civilization they’ve just set in motion by setting down roots on new land.
“Are those Bad Guys?” asked LB.
“Nope,” I said–and then, very gently: “What makes them seem like Bad Guys to you?”
“They look ugly,” he said. “And they’re wearing ugly clothes.”
Again, he’s five. This is just part of the process. We already had to have the “skin colour” conversation when he started painting, and thought that there was only one colour you could use to paint people’s skin. And we’ll surely have to have the conversation over and over and over again as he grows, because that’s just the nature of the world that we live in, and because it’s just that easy for small children to think of people who look the most like people in their families as “safer” or more “normal” than people who do not.
But in the process of trying to introduce LB to different kinds of learning in the world (the hope being that, down the road, he need never think a given life passion out of reach), I’m finding that there is a major distinction between believing in superheros and believing in Marvel comic creations (not least because Batman is clearly the superior superhero!), which became patently obvious when I asked him if he thought superheros were real.
“Yes?” he said–a bit tentatively, in the wake of our fourth conversation about the make-believe status of Gotham City.
“Who are they?” I asked, and he rattled off the usual Marvel heros: Spiderman, Iron Man, the Hulk. I gave him a bracing pat and said (essentially), “Sorry, buddy: those are all make-believe. But there are plenty of superheros in the world–people who do extraordinary things once in a while, or even most every day. People who have day-jobs like bus driver or school custodian, but who might still save someone falling from a building or stop a dangerous fight. Or firefighters, or the people who get you to the hospital when you’re hurt badly, or doctors, or researchers who find new and better ways to fix our bodies. Or–”
But he sighed loudly and tore away. “No, Maggie,” he said. “Those aren’t real superheros.”
“Because they don’t wear superhero clothes, duh.”
(And no, firefighter uniforms and lab coats apparently don’t count.)
Today, too, LB made what he calls a “flying gun” out of Lego. As he described it, the gun flies through the air until it sees Bad Guys on the ground, and then it kills them. He asked me if this kind of gun exists for real, so I told him about drone strikes in Pakistan. And I told him that since the real flying gun doesn’t know the difference between a Good Guy and a Bad Guy, in our world, it often kills them both. It even kills children, like him and his little brother.
LB, unfazed, went right on winging his flying gun through the room shooting at little cars on the floor below. “In Power Rangers,” he said after a spell, as confidently as an Evangelical quoting Scripture, “Good Guys and Bad Guys both get hurt sometimes.” Then his face lit up. “But Maggie,” he said. “I really like watching the Bad Guys get killed.”
Again, he’s five, and he has yet to lose a loved one. He lives in a pretty sheltered world, and he’s still just a touch too young to understand just how big and complex and often very scary and sad the world at large is. And I am so very happy he doesn’t have to know such hardships yet. I am so glad his childhood has been relatively safe and full of love, attention, and an immensely privileged access to all manner of toys and learning resources.
But now, in large part because of that good fortune, the real work begins from here on out. In the next few years, LB’s going to have to learn in earnest that his world is not the only world, and that the things he takes for granted are luxuries not afforded all. He’s going to have to learn that there are different ways of living, different ways of learning, and different experiences (in particular) of the violence that he so loves to watch on TV. He’s going to have to learn that there are very few situations in the real world that can be reduced to the actions of “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys”, and that there are many, many ways for just about anyone to do harm. He’s going to have to learn all this so as to minimize the harm–intentional and accidental–that he does himself.
I don’t write any of this to pathologize my nephew’s rough play, either. Indeed, LB’s interests as a child run quite counter to my own at his age, but I wholeheartedly appreciate the physical restlessness and imaginative hunger at its heart. To that end, as I have told LB in our many conversations about violent media and play, I hope he always feels feel free to test and expand his physical limits, and to explore even aggressive physical activity if he so chooses, so long as it’s in an environment where he respects the limitations of his playmates and always looks for their enthusiastic consent (consent and respect being especially key concepts when his much smaller brother is involved).
Heck, in a few years, I’ll even help him learn about the history of weapons, if he’s so interested–provided that this history is expressly moored to the varying contexts in which those weapons have been created and used. After all, guns and other weapons do not know the difference between “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys”–and they’re created and used by people who can and sometimes do (wilfully or incidentally) confuse the two as well.
Simply put, though, as much as I see LB’s female classmates–gussied up almost universally in pink clothes and pink backpacks–geared early and often towards very specific gender performances, I have come to see equally pervasive influences in the media to which my nephews are routinely exposed: at school, at friends’ houses, and at home.
As LB grows up, I have no doubt he’ll eventually realize he cannot be Spiderman for real, and his interests will move towards a life passion that is plausible–but how many tacit valuations of self and community will he nonetheless retain from his current, normalized love of wanton, oppositional violence in worlds he has difficulty separating from reality? And even if he does eventually untangle most of these tacit valuations, how much time will he have wasted realigning himself to the complexities of the real world?
Rest assured, I know I am incredibly lucky that this is the calibre of concern I get to have for my nephews–who have food to eat, a roof over their heads, access to regular education, plenty of loving guardians, and no fear of missiles falling from the sky. Would that every living child had the same.
In the absence of that ideal world, though, I think about one of the underlying desires that superhero fantasy roleplaying has also nurtured in my dear LB. I remember the day we looked through a copy of National Geographic and stumbled on the following photo:
At first, I glossed over the caption: “Murdered, then buried together in a grave festooned with antlers, two women from a Mesolithic cemetery on Téviec Island in Brittany, France, pay witness to a violent age. The shrinking of territories due to sea-level rise may have brought neighboring populations into conflict.”
But LB wouldn’t let me turn the page. He stared and he stared and then he said, “Maggie, why did these people die?”
I told him that other people had hurt them, probably because there weren’t enough resources to go around, and because those other people hadn’t realized there were better ways to live together in peace.
LB was quiet awhile longer, just tracing the shape of those skeletons. Finally he said, in the firmest little voice I’ve ever heard from him, “Maggie, if I had been there, I would have stopped those other people.”
I told him that I believed him, that I knew he would have tried his very best. And I do: that kind of comment, from a small child who has not yet learned guile or even the social function of guile in such situations, I have to take as genuine in intent.
But if my nephew thinks that saving people is just a matter of being powerful enough, of being able to “kill Bad Guys”, as so much of his media teaches him, well then, I fear his beloved superheros–whom he adores with perfect credulity right now, to the exclusion of real people struggling to make a difference in the world today–are leading these best of intentions astray.
(Yes, even Batman–may Batman forgive me for such blasphemy.)
Luckily, though, LB is only five. (Have I mentioned that enough?) For better and for worse, then, how very much he and his world have yet to change.