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Here to Save the Day

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According to my four-year-old, the world is divided into good guys and bad guys.

He’s become fascinated by superheroes. Capes, special powers, spider web-slinging — these all became his favorite topic of conversation about six months ago. At breakfast, he and my husband discuss Hulk’s smashing abilities. When I start to tell a bedtime story, he interrupts with, “Mama, are there superheroes and bad guys in this?” No is not an acceptable answer.

Beyond the fact that this interest marks a major divergence in our tastes (I don’t know much about shields and shape-shifting), I’ve wondered whether being so focused on superheroes is a good thing for my son.

There’s no getting around the fact that superheroes are violent, and we know that exposure to violence at a young age is problematic. For example, one study in Pediatrics from 2007 found that watching violent programs at ages 2-5 is associated with antisocial behavior in school. Kids are impressionable and built to model and mimic what they see, so bombarding them with aggressive content isn’t good. When my son first expressed an interest in Spiderman, we found cartoons from the 1960s, thinking they would be mellower than newer versions. Even that felt too intense for my little guy, so in our house for T.V. time, we’ve returned to the likes of the Backyardigans.

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Our preschool doesn’t seem too keen on superheroes either. Wearing superhero clothing to school isn’t allowed — a fact we discovered one day when my son left the house in a Batman tee and came home in a ladybug one. The rationale for banning superheroes at school is less about violence and more about the teachers wanting kids to find their own strengths (rather than taking on pre-fabricated character roles).

Sometimes I feel the same. Superheros are aggressive, and the villains are scary. They divide the world into good and evil and seem to send the message that being strong and powerful is paramount. But watching my curly-mopped son and his tall, broad father tear around in capes and masks, claiming our bedroom as their base and completing missions around the house to save various stuffed animals in distress, I realize the potential of superhero play. First of all, it requires a heavy dose of imagination. My son has turned Mexican wrestling masks (don’t ask why we have these in our house) and fabric from my sewing basket into Batman costumes. He creates fictional planets with couch pillows and side tables.

Despite my reservations, my husband’s passion is pretty convincing. He was a huge superhero and comic book fan as a child (okay, he went to Comic-Con this month, so he’s still a fan) and he says they did wonders for his creativity. They made him excited to draw and helped him think visually. The storylines of Peter Parker and Bruce Banner spoke to him. “It wasn’t about reality as we know it,” he says. “Flying was normal. The world exploding and then time being reversed was normal. It was creatively freeing.”

In the world of superheroes, anything is possible — and this idea does more than make for a fun afternoon. All that dreamed-up play is great exercise for the brain; it boosts skills in executive functioning, or the ability to plan and focus. And more symbolic play in preschool has been found to correlate with higher reading abilities in early elementary school. One recent study even found that wearing a Superman cape and hearing about his fantastic abilities (one of them being his “patience,” for the purpose of the study), made children better able to wait and delay gratification.

So instead of battling superheroes, I’ve figured out how to work with them. Beyond the benefit to his thinking skills, superheroes have started to open up important conversations for my son and me. What makes someone good? How do you know if a person is good or bad? And what if you can be both at the same time? These are major concepts for my son, who is clearly grappling with how to make sense of a big, complex world. I can use superheroes and their storylines as an “in” to talk about all kinds of hot topics.

Channeling superheroes from my own childhood helps with this. According to my parents, I once went into the preschool bathroom and jumped out wearing only the Wonder Woman underoos I had secretly hidden under my dress that morning. So yes, the little girl in me gets it. And superheroes don’t always dominate in our house, either. My son spent three hours yesterday building with magnet tiles, and his scenes alternated between a re-creation of the wedding he knows I attended last week and a two-foot mermaid. In other words, he’s a well-rounded kid. So along with his block-playing, drawing, and Lego-building, I’m embracing superheroes and all they have to offer.

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