The Batman Dilemna

The Batman Dilemna

Tired But Happy Mom Asks:

How Should Gun and Superhero Play Be Handled?

It might not bear repeating, but then again, maybe it can’t be said enough: The recent mass shootings in Colorado were unimaginably horrific. The excitement of a midnight movie premier interrupted by completely defenseless, unsuspecting people–including a baby–suddenly gunned down in the dark, frantically running for their lives, some dying on the movie theater floor. It is a scene of Hell itself.

As the nation continues to process it, as the trial begins, as families of those killed or injured grieve, those of us with children old enough to have heard the news have been struggling with how to explain the inexplicable to our kids. This is the case with Tired But Happy Mom, as she and Oldest and Younger Daughter (aged 11 and nearly 9) talk about it.

But Little Boy is three-years-old, too young to understand the news. He is not too young, however, to have been introduced via toy stores and popular culture to the Batman symbol; Batman action figures given to him by friends; and the whole idea of superheroes and their mission to “fight bad guys.” Little Boy also, somehow, has picked up–who knows how–that guns exist and that pretending to shoot at people with anything that could possibly resemble a gun (a twig, a block, an empty paper towel roll) is good fun to him and his buddies at preschool. 

Teachers don’t allow it, Tired But Happy Mom doesn’t allow it–all explaining that guns kill people and animals–but Little Boy and his friends sneak anyway. They love it. They also seem to have the idea that superheroes deploy guns to fight the bad guys.

There is the age-old argument that “boys are going to be boys,” but especially after the conflation of Batman and actual, horrendous murder-by-gun, Tired But Happy Mom isn’t having it. She recognizes that all children are on a continuum of expressions of play–and that some of that play can get pretty rough and tumble–and she’s fine with it, basic safety permitting. But the conflation of guns, violence, and superheroes in the mind of Little Boy is not something she’s willing to treat with benign neglect.

So, in spite of his tender age, Little Boy and Tired But Happy Mom have been engaged in some pretty serious discussions about guns, violence, and superheroes. Granted, these discussions are short-lived (as are most with three-year-olds, who want to move onto the next thing after about three minutes), and they’re age-appropriate (we’re talking basic concepts, not elaborate dissertations), but they center around a few basic premises: 

1) Superheroes’ goal is to protect people from those that would try to hurt them.

2) Superheroes would prefer not to fight “bad guys” with physical violence, but, rather, convince them that it is wrong to hurt people. They fight only when they need to protect themselves.

3) Superheroes don’t use guns. They learn special fighting techniques or deploy their special powers to contain “bad guys” so that the police can put them in prison, where they are locked away and kept from hurting people.

Now, Tired But Happy Mom knows enough about superheroes, comic books, cartoons, and movies to know that the premises she’s trying to instill aren’t altogether true. There are many, many “superheroes” who use not only guns, but extraordinarily complex weaponry to kill “bad guys.” And forget about graphic novels. Many of the superheroes in those are actual psychotics. Heck, Batman, as he was originally conceived, was a rich and explicitly psychotic vigilante.

But she’s not getting into any of that with a three-year-old. Younger daughter is just beginning to dive into the world of (carefully curated) graphic novels, and Tired But Happy Mom has long and fascinating talks with her about the role mental illness plays in the M.O. of the many emotionally complex heroes in these narratives–and the tenuous line between morality and justice that these characters negotiate. Tired But Happy Mom often finds herself thinking she’s in some graduate school colloquium with her almost nine-year-old girl.

Even then, as cool and riveting as it is to get to have such nuanced conversations with Younger Daughter, Tired But Happy Mom always keeps in mind: This child is a third-grader. There are certain territories that simply must be shelved until she’s old enough to handle them intellectually and emotionally. If experienced psychiatrists and litigators wrestle with making sense of such psychological and ethical complexities, Tired But Happy Mom is just fine waiting until both she and Younger Daughter have matured enough to ponder them!

But with Little Boy, such issues need to be clear and limited to only a few. And, frankly, because he doesn’t watch any of these cartoons–much less movies–it doesn’t matter a whit to Tired But Happy Mom that she’s not giving him the complete picture about superheroes, guns, and violence. All she wants him to know is that superheroes, and any kind of hero, want to protect people from harm and only fight to defend themselves.

And in the end, that just makes them plain, old good people who want to do the right thing just because it’s the right thing for all of us to do. They just get to wear cool costumes. And he can definitely do that, too. 

 Tired But Happy Mom is also known as Susan Gregory Thomas, author of In Spite of Everything: A Memoir (Random House: July, 2011) and Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds (Houghton Mifflin: May, 2007). Thomas writes for The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, Marie ClaireParents, and others. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.



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