Our classroom is regularly invaded by superheroes, the most memorable of whom was The Hulk, who also did business has The Snow Hulk, The Cardboard Block Hulk, The Hay Hulk, and the Quiet Hulk, depending on the day. This fantastically enormous and powerful being, operating through the body of one of our most diminutive friends, is only one of a veritable legion of impossibly gifted personas to have burst through Woodland Park’s doors.
We’ve spent time with Batman, Spiderman, Superman, Thor (the Norse god of thunder), and Wonder Woman – all characters from my own childhood. I myself have actually been each of these powerful characters at one time or another. (If The Hulk can wear a pink satin slip, I can pretend to be Wonder Woman.)
These, however, are not the only “superheroes” that regularly grace our classroom. I don’t think it’s stretching the term unreasonably to include the whole glittering spectacle of princesses who walk among us, Disney and otherwise, with their own magical powers. And then there are such stalwarts as Harry Potter, Barbie, and an endless parade of fire fighters, construction workers, dinosaurs and other animals with sharp teeth.
At some point all of us need to try on a powerful persona. Everyone needs to experience what it means to fly, to triumph, to be a big deal in the big world.
To paraphrase Desmond Tutu: it’s not the darkness within ourselves that we fear; it’s the light. I think that’s what we’re dealing with here, at least at some level. Young children haven’t yet learned to be afraid of that incredible, limitless potential that each of us possesses – the 90 percent of our brains that goes unused. That is what they are engaging when they play with superhuman power. (And sadly, I think, it's our adult fear of this light that ultimately causes many of us to give up playing at superhero.)
At the same time, our children haven’t yet learned to fear the darkness either. The violence is exciting. The romance of it is thrilling. As adults, our broader experience teaches us that the horror of violence must be reserved as a last resort; that the pursuit of impossible beauty standards can lead to diseased behavior; that none of us will ever actually possess the super powers in question.
Like it or not, this is our society. These are the models of power that the larger world presents to our children. I don’t know if they are any better or worse than the models of power presented to children in other eras (Did ancient Greek children play Apollo or Aphrodite?) but I do know they are more insistently pounded into our children than ever before. Marketers target children with these superhero messages because they know your children need to imagine what it means to fly.
As parents we’re caught in between. Of course we want our children to engage in robust and imaginative power play. On the other hand we want them to understand that there are other ways to be powerful than through violence and societal standards of beauty. You can try to block it out, but it still gets in, it’s everywhere; you can slow it down, but you can’t stop it.
The society our children see through the lens of the mass media is incredibly warped and it’s our job to provide the rest of the story. Understanding this, most of us try to limit our children’s exposure to these powerful media images, but that can’t be the only thing we do. One of our jobs as parents is to equip our children with tools for dealing with the parts of our culture that emerge from the darkness. It’s our job to make sure our own opinions are understood. We need to make sure our children know where we stand on issues of violence and beauty. If we don’t do this we are letting marketers decide what our children learn about being powerful . . . And we need to do it without browbeating or anger, trusting our own honestly held beliefs, expressed clearly and calmly, to guide our children to make the right choices.
And as we gently point out the flaws in the myth of superheroes and princesses, we also must provide other, more realistic ways to exert power in the world. We need to make sure they also experience some of the thousands of other ways to shine our powerful light in the world.
For instance, one of the most popular circle time activities at Woodland Park is giving compliments. I ask, “Who wants to make someone else feel good?” and one at a time the children are called on to demonstrate their “superpower” of saying something kind to a friend. More often than not, it’s an actual compliment (e.g., “I like your shoes,” “I like your hair.”) but we’re not sticklers. Sometimes it’s a statement of affection (e.g., “I like you.”) or a wish (e.g., “I want you to come play at my house.”). Sometimes it’s whispered into a friend’s ear and the only way we know it worked is by the resulting smile. In any event, all on their own, the children have added the convention of following up their “compliment” with a hug. Throughout the exercise I repeat the mantra, “Sally (or Billy or Johnny) is being powerful by making someone feel good.”
We keep track of each compliment by adding a “link” to a plastic chain that is hung from the ceiling. The goal is to encircle ourselves with compliments by the end of the year. Our plastic chain link set came with 500 pieces. That’s a lot of power play! I love the mighty cheer each year as we add the final link. I see in their faces and hear in their applause how (super)powerful they feel. Look what we’ve done!
Some teachers ban superhero play, but I’ve made peace with it and try my best to use the power these impossible heroes embody to help children develop their own powers. At school we try to point out that the real mission of superheroes is to help people, not to scare them or fight them. We find traits beyond mere beauty to praise in each of the Disney princesses (e.g., Ariel is adventurous, we know Belle is smart because she loves to read, Cinderella is kind to animals.) Those are the real world superpowers. And I think that’s the opportunity here. If we can, even in small measure, help our children experience their own light, to find their own real world super powers – that potential represented by the other 90 percent of their beautiful brains – then we help them actually become the superheroes they imagine themselves to be.
(Reprinted, with revisions, from 6/14/09)