Q: My 4-year-old has entered the superhero phase — lots of fun, but he's also trying to figure out the difference between real and pretend. He asks a lot about what's "in real life" and what's not. Specifically: bad guys. He seeks reassurance that the bad guys in superhero books and games (he doesn't watch them on TV) don't exist in real life. I tell him that Mr. Freeze and the Joker aren't real ... but it's time to tackle the idea of real-life bad guys in an age-appropriate way. Do you have any tips? He is curious and creative but also sensitive, and he internalizes his emotions. Even seeing conflict on TV (Thomas the Tank Engine doing something naughty!) has him hiding behind the couch cushions. He does not have deep anxiety about consequences when he misbehaves, which I'm grateful for, but I'm trying to find the balance between preparing him to keep himself safe and completely freaking him out.
A: The beautiful thing about 4-year-olds is that they still believe in a bit of magic, and the difficult thing about 4-year-olds is that they still believe in a bit of magic. This won't last much longer (he will grow out of it, usually by 6 or 7), but until then, you have decisions to make.
You want to convince him that "bad guys" like Mr. Freeze and the Joker don't exist in real life while also tackling the idea of what real-life bad guys are really like, right? That is a tight line to walk, because real bad guys are quite complicated. The best superheroes and villains contain both good and bad qualities, and this makes them compelling. Humans are never fully good or bad, so we love flawed heroes and sympathetic villains. Though I am a big fan of living in the gray area, as well as showing our children how almost every person and decision is complicated, I am not sure you need to dive into this right now with your 4-year-old. In fact, I think you may need to back off the superhero books and exposure for a while, too.
Hear me out.
I don't know much about your family, but you've told me that your 4-year-old is curious, creative, sensitive and internalizes his emotions. I am not sure that violence (or threats of violence), menacing characters, cliffhangers and scary situations in books are good for him right now. Are they doing serious damage? I doubt it, but rather than rush to explain the vagaries of the world to him, my spidey senses are telling me we need fewer superheroes and more imaginative play.
I know children will play "good" and "bad" in their imaginative play; play is how a young child works out everything they are learning. But because cooperative play and make-believe are already part of the wheelhouse for a 4-year-old, we don't need to add to it with too many scary stories. The average 4-year-old's mind is plenty full of stories and excitement.
Considering that your 4-year-old is extra-sensitive, layering on information about real bad guys might be more detrimental than helpful. His brain is still working out black-and-white thinking (good or bad, right or wrong), and given that conflict sends him running, trying to explain how real-life villains work is not going to go well.
How is the immature brain going to process that the world is actually far worse (and better) than the world of superheroes? With more panic. Because his little nervous system was born naturally jumpy, he needs more protection from the bad stuff, not earlier exposure.
I know some people may be thinking, "Well, isn't that nice . . . we're all just going to protect children from the injustices and horrors of the world forever, Meghan?" No. I am just saying that a mature brain handles information better than an immature brain, and if I could go into every home and neighborhood and save children from the horrors of the world, I would. Optimally, parents would shield their preschoolers from the terrible things of the world; 4-year-olds need play, rest, room for big emotions, boundaries and compassion. Information about bad guys? No.
Stop, slow down or swap out some of the violent superhero stories with gentler books. He may not like this, but you are the parent, so you get to decide what he consumes. Increase books that show people or animals wrestling with making mistakes, suffering a little, and learning from them.
When it comes to handling his curiosity surrounding the real world, answer his questions honestly, but don't volunteer any more than you need to. A good rule of thumb is that you answer questions until a 4-year-old stops asking them, but if you feel that your son is beginning to spin out with worry, do not be afraid to put a gentle end to the conversation. Reassuring him with something such as, "I know bad guys are scary. You are safe here and I am not going anywhere. Let's make some celery and peanut butter now," can acknowledge feelings while moving him along. The overarching feeling we want to provide is one of safety, especially for this child who is so deeply affected by images and stories about conflict.
Keeping your son emotionally safe is not coddling; it's a parent's job. When it is time to explain the horrors of life, you will also do that. We just don't need to introduce worry earlier than necessary. It is not going to help him grow up. Good luck.
Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.