Power Rangers, Superman, Pokemon, the X-Men. The plastic action figures litter your child?s floor.
And it?s not just the toys. In today?s world of kid-targeted marketing, your child might watch the same characters soar across the screen on after-school television, wear the character?s face on a T-shirt and pull crumpled school papers out of a backpack bearing that same face.
If you have a child in early elementary school, you understand the huge appeal of superheroes. Although the names of the heroes may change with the season and the year, the underlying reasons for their attraction are timeless.
Why do kids like superheroes? According to Dr. Dan Acuff, a psychologist and the president of Youth Market Systems Consulting, children relate to these fictional characters on a number of levels:
- Nurturing. A child either nurtures a character or is nurtured by it. Think of Barney who sings about love and acceptance and is known for giving, or childlike characters like Elmo or Blue who encourage your child?s own caretaking skills.
- Identifying. A child sees himself in characters like Madeline and Arthur. These characters are typical kids (or aardvarks), dealing with typical kid problems.
- Emulatory. A child wants to be like the character. Think Power Rangers or Mystic Knights. What kid wouldn?t love the ability to zap lightning bolts at will or swing from a spider web laced across the skyscrapers?
- Entertaining. A child simply expects the character to be fun and amusing. Think Scooby Doo.
- Disidentification. A child is intrigued by the "dark side" or negative attributes of the character. Kids might not necessarily want to be Darth Vader, but the character?s very existence provides a clear distinction between good and evil. Without the bad guys, we?d never need good guys!
According to Acuff, when a child is in elementary school, he begins to seek freedom from a world where adults hold most of the power. His heroes model this freedom.
As children grow, their interaction with superheroes also changes. Your preschooler may have tied an old blanket around her shoulders and flown around the house pretending to be Wonder Woman. But as she enters elementary school, your child becomes more concerned with realism. Now she wants a real cape.
As parents, there are ways you can help your child balance his fascination with superheroes with reality:
- Encourage physical play: riding bikes, shooting baskets, playing tag.
- Reinforce the difference between fantasy and reality with statements like, "OK. Let?s quit pretending and come eat some real supper."
- Talk about the distorted physical features on the action figures and the use of exaggeration for effect. You might say, "Wow. If that character were real, his biceps would be twice as big as Mark McGwire?s!"
- Identify real heroes. Talk about what defines a hero for your child and help him understand that real heroes are people who care about others, utilize the gifts God gives them and seek to make the world a better place. Contrasting this with the world of superheroes will help him keep the plastic figures and caped crusaders in perspective.
?Mary Manz Simon, Ed.D.
Writer, speaker, mother of three
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