Friday, June 20, 2008

"Daddy, what does 'evil' mean?"

By Charlie Kondek

The nature of what my oldest son reads or, more accurately, likes to have read to him is changing. For the first time, the characters and stories that interest him have good guys and bad guys and he is trying to understand the motive and behavior of the bad guys.

Stories are driven by character and conflict. There are many kinds of characters but only three kinds of conflicts; man versus man, man versus nature and man versus himself. Until now, my son's stories have mostly involved man versus nature or, at most, man versus himself. The best examples of this are the Thomas the Tank Engine stories, which normally revolve around trains and trucks working together to overcome obstacles or finding the strength of character to persevere in the face of adversity. Ditto Bob the Builder, Lunar Jim and his other favorites.

Now my son is increasingly interested in stories that involve villains. It started with the Thomas the Tank Engine full-length feature movie, which I despise because it is a betrayal of the original intention of the series and introduces an unnecessary villain character, a train called Diesel 10 with no apparent motive for wanting to destroy everything and who is not answerable to the powers of authority that govern the trains' well-regulated world. This was the first time we discussed evil and tried to understand Diesel 10's motives. My son was absolutely fascinated by Diesel 10, always wanted to include the character in his play, and honestly found the whole situation comical. As a parent and a writer and a participant in my son's play, I rolled with this change in material, under silent protest.

These days, my son is interested in space. In space, space as understood by the makers of children's toys, there are good guys and bad guys. Buzz Light Year is trying to keep "the evil emperor Zurg" from destroying the universe. The Planet Heroes oppose "the evil Professor Darkness" and his henchmen. For the first time, my son has been introduced to the idea that when a bad guy shows up, you may have to shoot him with a laser, punch him in the nose, destroy his base with explosives and other acts of violence.

I'm not the least bit bothered by this and, indeed, am fascinated at seeing the shift in my son's understanding. I must have been just like him at one time, as we all are, innocent children incapable of consciously dealing true, pre-meditated hurt, and justifying that hurt in the name of law, order, righteousness, etc. In truth, I don't remember a time when I wasn't fascinated by an illusion of acceptable violence. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to see good guys punching bad guys, knights in armor, Bruce Lee clearing out a room full of thugs, super heroes knocking each other through walls, the works. I'm sure most boys gravitate toward that material. If you've read this blog at all, it's obvious that it's still the kind of material that interests me.

Meanwhile, I am simply watching my son grow in his comparatively shallow awareness of evil. It's led to some interesting conversations. As any parent knows, you speak of things to kids in a way the child will understand. I have instructed my son that an evil person is one who wants to hurt others and take their stuff. I haven't told him what killing is because he has only a vague idea of what death is. I've told him that sometimes people do bad things but are still good people, and that a truly evil person like Zurg is bad all the time. And I have explained that maybe evil people are the way they are because they are lonely or upset about something, and need someone to be their friend.

My oldest son, who I'm writing about, is almost five and I feel this is enough for now. I am looking forward to enjoying more of this kind of material with him and exploring these ideas further. I think it's useful as well as entertaining, and certainly one of the devices by which I have interpreted the world. You graduate from Alice in Wonderland to Darth Vader to The Godfather to The Great Questions. You grow in your understanding of evil as a humorous obstacle, as a clear cut case of right and wrong, as a complex problem that invades us all. At this point, though, to a boy who is almost five, it's most appropriate to think that evil is a caricature, just another toy, and that the best way to deal with it is to bury it in sand, roll it off the coffee table or drop your kid brother's diaper on it.


Maria said...

I really think this blog would benefit from a sound clip of Nasty Nigel.

bigguyd said...

Sometimes Evil isn't bad all the time. Take Darth Vader for example. The dude was a one of the nice guys, til he was brainwashed by the old creepy dude. Then he came back around...well, on his death bed.

Another example is right in your post...Zurg. Remember he was playing with his "son" at the end of the movie. He became a big softie!

We all have evil streaks sometimes, as I'm sure you know from experiencing fatherhood. Kids CAN get a bit nasty when they want to.

Charlie Kondek said...

I absolutely agree, Big Guy. As I've gotten older, even though I like my good guys good and my bad guys bad, I still feel that in life as in fiction evil is, as you point out, more complicated - basically good people doing evil things, evil people who believe what they are doing is good, and all kinds of weird combinations of behavior and intention.

I still think that fiction is going to be a great way to teach my kids that.

And LMAO @ "Nasty Nigel."

babbo said...

How about the Ghostbusters?

I put it on for my boys a few months ago (they're 4 & 2 years old). Unexpectedly, it was an instant hit, and is now on high rotation with Cars the Movie and Thomas, too.

I like the way you verbalized all of the positive things that occur for you and your son because of story. I find it sad that some people think TV is bad for kids.

I happen to know some parents who forgot part of the "age appropriate story progression" you spoke about - they went straight from Elmo, to South Park, to the Sopranos by the time the kid was 5 years old!

Not a good idea in my opinion...

Glad to have found you through the Manival.



Charlie Kondek said...

You're so right, Joey. I have an acquaintance whose 5-year-old watches Batman. I said, "You mean Batman with Adam West from the 60s?" No. Batman Begins. The child calls it "scary Batman."

Joey, glad to know you. I'll be checking out Daddy Brain. These manivals are great, aren't they?