I swear my son, Levi, came out of the womb wearing a Spiderman costume – much to my dismay at the time. I was never going to be a mother who encouraged superhero play – too much fighting, too gender specific and what if my son sided with the bad guy?
His dad, however, is a superhero fan from way back, so when he asserted some masculine authority over our son’s viewing habits I tentatively waited in the wings with a Wiggles DVD, hoping our boy would see it my way.
Levi now owns a massive box full of superhero costumes, he has seen all the movies and can even tell me the names of obscure bad guys from the original TV series of Spiderman. He’s an intelligent, lively and coordinated kid whose pre-school report this year happily stated that he has “a gentle personality (and) is rarely involved in conflict with another child”.
I am now what my husband calls a ‘born-again’ supporter of superhero play and I wouldn’t change a thing about the little caped crusader who runs full pelt around our house all day fighting bad guys.
Superhero play is one of the more controversial forms of childhood play. Some people claim it encourages violence and aggression and creates disruptive behaviour. Modern research, however, points to the importance and benefits of dramatic play involving superheroes.
In Exploring Early Childhood, Louise Weihen and Kerry Tolley discuss superhero play as an important stage in the development of pre-school children.
Weihen says that some of the benefits of this type of play include an understanding of friends and enemies as well as power and vulnerability. By exploring such concepts in play kids can ‘try on power’ as they face potentially frightening situations such as bedwetting, monsters or being separated from their parents.
Weihen also says that superhero play helps kids understand the difference between good and evil. Most kids will identify with the good guy as they struggle to stop themselves doing ‘naughty’ things in their everyday life.
Superhero play can also assist with the development of empathy in children. In their play kids have to assess the needs of other characters as well as their own.
One of the current hot topics in child development is the need to encourage our kids to be physically active. Superhero play encourages children to jump, run and move as they imitate their heroes.
Of course, such physical activity creates concerns about the nature of such play and the possibility of encouraging violent behaviour. These concerns are addressed by applying a measure of common sense.
Just as any form of play requires adult supervision in varying degrees, so too does superhero play. A parent or carer should feel free to use their usual discipline for superhero play. For example, if hitting is not acceptable in other forms of play then the same rule applies to superhero play.
But what about the girls – where are their heroes? Studies indicate that girls have an interest in the benefits derived from this form of play.
Wonder Woman has long been the standard for female superheroes and in 1998 The Powerpuff Girls made their first appearance. They were a great example of ‘girl power’ ideas popular in the late 1990s.
Recent additions to the stable of fabulous female superheroes include Elastigirl – the Mum from The Incredibles and her equally super daughter, Violet, allowing girls a voice in the world of ‘being super’.
So if you find, like me, that you have spawned a teeny superhero I say embrace him or her in their quest for power. After all, as early childhood carer Yvette Blue says, “It’s only for a very short time that you get to be a caped crusader in your life.”
And if all else fails just do as we do and remind your littlest hero that, in the words of Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Five ways to respond to superhero play
When your child plays superhero or other good vs. evil games, he is exploring different power roles -- an important part of his social and moral growth. Still, this activity can easily escalate into chaos! Keep it from getting out of hand by following these guidelines.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem