It’s easy to see why the likes of Superman, Catwoman and super-cool secret agent James Bond are such a hit with children. With their superhuman abilities, swooping in to save the day, battling baddies and saving citizens in distress, what’s not to admire? But for many parents the idea of their little cherub tearing around the playground attacking baddies with a variety of imaginary weapons is more alarming than admirable. Shouldn’t we discourage children from violent play, even if it is only make-believe?
Not according to American academic Gerard Jones, best-selling author of Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes And Make-Believe Violence. “It’s a common belief that these fantasy role-playing games of being heroes are in some way dangerous – that they’ll lead young children to become more violent later on. But the evidence is that the children who are most into the superhero fantasies turn out to be the most sensitive children.”
In fact, the proof is coming in thick and fast that heroes are good for children’s all-round development. They may not necessarily be the role models you would choose for your child, but it’s not your choice. As role models go, superheroes really are pretty super. Studies show that donning a super identity can help children develop moral values. Superhero play allows them to explore abstract ideas of good and bad, death and pain, and all in a safe environment. And most importantly, pretending to be super gives children a sense of control over a world that can seem big and scary. By morphing into a Power Ranger, or a Powerpuff Girl, children can feel grown-up and helpful. “And that’s a good feeling,” says social psychologist Dr Sandra Wheatley. “Suddenly, they have the power to participate and help. That sense of helping other people, of being part of something bigger than them, fulfils an elemental human need.” Emotional fulfilment plus cool super powers… who wouldn’t want to be a superhero?