(istock)

“Mommy, are there real bad guys?”

My 4-year-old son has been asking me this question every night. He’s going through a superhero phase, and is obsessed with the Justice League. Lately, he’s concerned about bad guys. He wants to know what Mommy and Daddy plan to do about them.

When I was pregnant, I never expected parenting to be so philosophical. Because, you see, these questions are more complicated than they seem. They began with other, equally confusing questions, such as, “Are Batman and Superman real?”

This is tricky territory. When we watch movies, and he’s scared of Nemo’s dad being chased by a shark, or the predators in “Zootopia,” or Mufasa plummeting to his death, I comfort him with, “Don’t worry, it’s just a movie. They’re not real.” Little did I realize the doors I was opening. Because if Nemo and Mufasa are just characters on a screen, then it stands to reason that Superman and his crime-fighting cohorts are also fictitious. And if there’s no Justice League, who will fight the bad guys?

Hence my son’s nightly questions: Are the bad guys real? And, if so, who is going to keep him safe?

I try to keep the answers simple. Yes, there are some bad guys out there, but most people are good. He’s safe in his bed, in his house, with his Mommy and Daddy. There’s nothing to worry about.

But he’s a smart, thoughtful little guy, and we end up having some difficult conversations:

4-year-old: So, who fights the bad guys?

Mommy: You don’t have to worry about bad guys. There are no bad guys in our house.

4-year-old: What if the bad guys break in? Are the doors locked? Do you know how to fight bad guys?

Mommy: Yes, the house is safe. Mommy will protect you from any bad guys.

My son, who is aware that Mommy can barely run around the block without breaking into a sweat, looks skeptical. “Here,” he says, handing me a foam sword from the pirate adventure he went on last summer. “If the bad guys break in, use this.” I nod my assent and take the sword, ready for battle. He seems satisfied, for the moment.

Unfortunately, the questions continue. Who protects our town if there aren’t really superheroes? I tell him that in real life, police officers and firefighters are the superheroes who protect us. But this just leads to more difficult questions: Do police kill bad guys? Is it okay to kill bad guys? And just what makes a “bad guy” bad, anyway? Does breaking the law make you a bad guy?

I’m not sure how to answer. People who jaywalk are technically breaking the law, but I doubt there’s a special place in hell waiting for them. And, no, police aren’t supposed to kill people, but obviously there’s some gray area there. These stories have been all over the news, and it’s only a matter of time before my son overhears some of this confusing reality. And so I find myself explaining, in the simplest terms possible, a little about the American justice system. Police arrest people who break the law. Juries and judges determine if they go to jail. Some people in jail are good people who made a mistake. Other people may be “bad people.” But my son doesn’t have to worry about any of this because he’s only 4.

Somehow, though, he seems clued into the fact that being 4 won’t necessarily protect him from the evils of the world, whatever those may be. Somehow, by admitting the Justice League — that collection of invincible, righteous superheroes protecting the populace in a black-and-white world — is merely a creation on a screen, I’ve made his world a little scarier. Somehow, I’ve allowed him to have a dose of reality that doesn’t come with easy, comforting answers.

He turns on the light next to his bed and pulls the covers tight around him.

“You have the sword, right, Mommy? You’re going to fight the bad guys?”

I assure him I’m armed and dangerous. Because in a world with no Batman, I suppose Mommy will have to be his superhero.

Meredith Hale is the author of “Mommy A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the Joys, Wonders, and Absurdities of Motherhood.” Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and the Mommy A to Z blog.

You can find more parenting coverage at washingtonpost.com/onparenting, and sign up for our newsletter here. Like On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, advice and news.

You might also be interested in:

Why I’m teaching my 6-year-old to meditate

Born at 28 weeks, my son has defied all the odds

Child psychologist: This is how to raise human beings who are ready for the real world