What About When The Bad Guys Are Real?

“Mom, are bad guys real?” asked my son, who was 4 years old at the time.

“Of course not,” I was ready to say. “Bad guys are only in the movies.”

But that’s not what I said. I paused, as we mothers often do when we don’t know how to answer our kids. I ummmed and coughed and weeeeellled as long as I could. How was I to answer this question?

We’ve chosen to expose our kids to some movies with bad guys — Darth Vader, Ursula, Scar. Hell, there’s even an “evil pony” in My Little Ponies. And if we see a look of fear in their faces, we always tell them the same thing: “The good guys always win.” And in kids’ movies, they do.

But we are raising our babies in real life. In a world where bad guys are real. Columbine was real. ISIS is real. Newtown. Newtown was real.

Like many parents, we often flounder and fear that we aren’t doing or saying the right thing. How much is too much information for their still developing little brains? We don’t want to terrify them unnecessarily, but it is our job to teach them about safety. In our house, we have decided to walk the tightrope—expose them gently to the truths of the world outside, while trying to help them maintain an optimistic view from their childhood eyes.

So, here I was. On that tightrope, teetering between a complete lie: “Nope! Bad guys are all pretend!” and blatant honesty: “Yes. A bad guy can be anywhere.” I stuck out my arms for balance and went with, “There are some people who are sick, or mean, or sad, and sometimes they do bad things.”

I waited for his response, hearing the thud… thud… thud… of my heartbeat.

“Well, are superheroes real?”

Shit. Round two.

“Ummmm…Batman and Superman are characters in movies and books. But there are heroes in real life, like police officers and firefighters, your teachers, and even your mommy and daddy. Lots of people are heroes. You could be a hero. You just need to be brave and do the right thing.”

Okay, I think I fielded that one pretty well. But I was not ready for what came next.

“What if a bad guy tries to get me and a superhero doesn’t come in time?”

Thankfully we were in the car and my son was two rows away from me in my bus of a mini-van. Thankfully he couldn’t see the tears in my eyes, and he couldn’t sense the strain in my voice, as I forced out the words, “Then you’ll need to be brave. But try not to worry about that, buddy. You’re safe with Mommy and Daddy and you’re safe at school.”

Because good guys always win, right? He’s safe, right? For a brief time recently, I didn’t know if he was. We received an email and phone call from our elementary school principal that their school was on lockdown. There had been “police activity” in the area, and the school officials felt it prudent to close and lock all doors to ensure the children’s safety. Stories swirled around the neighborhood of a shooting and a gunman at large. I tried to breathe and pray and believe that my little boy was safe. That there were no bad guys and that if one did come near my baby, a superhero would be there to save the day, because I wasn’t able to. I was at home, on lockdown in my own house, with my other babies, waiting. After about an hour, the news reported that it had been a false alarm, everyone was safe, and no gunman was running the streets shooting at people. We all let out a breath, picked up our kids, and hugged them extra tight on the way home. He’s safe, I said to myself. There are no bad guys. Today.

Since that conversation, and since this unnerving event in our community, I continue to walk that tightrope, every day, trying to expose my kids to some truths to keep them safe (“Don’t talk to strangers… No one touches your privates…”) but also shielding them from others. I tell them they are safe at school and when they are with Mom and Dad. Does that mean a bad guy can’t get us? No, but just let one of them try and then he’ll see some real superheroes in action.

This post was originally featured on Karen Johnson’s blog, The 21st Century Sahm. Feautred image via.