We had my son's fourth birthday party the day the Patriots beat the Falcons in the Super Bowl. As everyone knows, the bad guys won that day. My son got to eat chocolate cake, so the party wasn't ruined. Still, he brings it up from time to time. My kid isn't unique. Over and over again, research shows that people emphasise the negative over the positive, both in our memories and the here-and-now.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla (Getty Images)
Maybe that's why we can't bear unhappy endings in make believe. We like bad, for a while. Bad is cunning and sexy and charismatic. Bad guys get big brains and cool cars and the best lines. But, like riding a roller coaster, we want to be terrified only briefly before landing safely where we started. When the track leads into the gnashing teeth of the killer shark, it's shocking. The implication is that a sick and twisted mind has tricked us - switched escapism with something too close to real life.
When you get to the end of a story such as No Country for Old Men, on the page or on the screen, it feels unfinished. You're left dazed and hollow and stammering. That isn't how it's supposed to work. The hero isn't supposed to die! Evil isn't supposed to triumph! You are cute little Fred Savage, livid at Grandpa Columbo. Indeed, Grampa. If you wanted to read me a story where the bad guy wins, you could've read me the newspaper instead.
In real life, the forces of hatred, bigotry and violence are winning so much lately that it's tempting to give up, to retreat into make believe, to ban the news from your home in order to keep your children's version of the world calm and orderly. This is a very bad idea.
For one thing, it does nothing to help the good guys. Also, you'd be harming your kid in the long run. When she grows up and leaves the protection of your no-news zone, she'll be unprepared to face reality. Plus, it isn't fair to you. The day of the Parkland shooting, I couldn't stop crying. At such a time, stoicism would have made me crazy. Most importantly, you might be robbing humanity of its next great freedom fighter. Lord knows the good guys could use some help.
Here are a few ideas to teach your kids how to fight back when the bad guys win.
Give Space to Vent
When something bad happens, let your kids have a natural reaction. Don't give subtle or overt cues that you disapprove of their sadness or frustration. In situations such as these, my daughter says she doesn't get sad. She gets angry. So, she goes into her room and hits her pillow a few times. "I know that's not fair to my pillow," she says. I'm OK with it, as long as it's a pillow she's hitting, and not her brother.
After the initial bursts of emotion, you can begin working on next steps. But all the sadness - or anger - has to get out, to clear your mind. It's no good holding back the tears or soothing too quickly. Let them experience their feelings fully, without any timeline.
As you begin to think about how to respond - after an innocent person is killed, or a powerless community is harassed - encourage your kids to get their thoughts down on paper.
Younger kids may want to draw or paint a picture of what the world would look like without the bad guy in question. Older kids can write lists or journal entries, ordering their thoughts and creating concrete next steps. These visualisations will give you clues about how to comfort them and lead the way forward. Everyone likes a plan. With any luck, their ideas will give you a little hope, too.
As my daughter says, "What we believe in isn't gone, it's just hidden for now." Put another way: We may be down, but we're not out. Our commitment to the cause hasn't wavered.
Rallying the troops is a good instinct. But where's the proof? Look to the stories that come after the tragedy. As grief-stricken as I was on the day 17 students were murdered in their school, I have been inspired and buoyed by the bravery and leadership of the survivors who have lifted their voices to demand a safer society.
These kids are just a few years older than my daughter, and I've talked with her about their efforts - not to erase the mass murder, but to shift her focus away from the bad guy and toward those who are acting in his wake. I also point to examples from history. The people of the past who stood up against injustice provide a roadmap to the future.
Help Those Who Need It Most
I'm an American white dude. Me and my kids live free of the threats that afflict billions of other people around the world. If this also describes you, then focus your efforts on those who are ground up in the machinery of society - not on your own dismay.
Websites such as Volunteer Match and Volunteering Australia are good places to start. Play to your kid's strengths. My daughter likes cooking and reading, so soup kitchens and literacy organisations are good fits. You can also turn to your local paper, and the bad news it brings, for leads. Note which groups and individuals are mentioned as offering help and reach out to them.
Balance personal enrichment with the common good on a two-to-one or one-to-one scale. What I mean is, for every ballet class, let there also be a shift at the food bank. This sort of regular volunteering teaches your kids how important it is to spend a portion of their time working to benefit other people.
Battle against the bystander effect in large and small ways. If, for instance, Grandpa Columbo was one of 20,000 people who voted for a holocaust-denying neo-Nazi, and he begins braying about it during Sunday dinner, don't change the subject. Confront him. Let it get awkward. Don't back down. Too often, people with an inclination toward tolerance are willing to tolerate hateful ideas.
Don't stop with Grandpa. Attend local council meetings. Call your elected officials. Take your kids to rallies and marches. This last idea is especially important, when it comes to comforting your children in the wake of a bad guy's triumph. In the small world of your home, it's easy for them to feel beaten. Out in the real world, surrounded by thousands of others, the truth is plain: The bad guy hasn't won, the fight isn't over, and there are way more of us than there are of him.