Sporadic Sequential
Friday, October 17, 2008
The Superhero Scourge

My daughter's daycare sent home an interesting letter to preschool parents this week. It was a reminder that, for the second year in a row, they're completely banning all superhero-related material for older students. (My daughter just moved up to a new class so we weren't aware the ban was in place last year.) Clothes, toys, books, whatever — if it has a superhero on it, students are prohibited from bringing it to school. The reason given for the ban is that students are more likely to engage in certain "inappropriate and aggressive behaviors" — punching, hitting, kicking — if they are exposed to superhero imagery. According to the letter, the "decision to eliminate all super heroes during the school day was very helpful in establishing better conflict resolution and behaviors in our classrooms."

I have no idea if viewing superhero imagery causes or correlates with aggressive actions in children (the letter cites research done by David Walsh in his book No to support the policy), but the letter did resonate with my own unease I've been feeling lately. Recently one of my daughter's favorite bedtime stories has been the Amazing Spider-Man pop-up book. We flip through it and I make up a story that tries to tie together all the unrelated profile pages. My daughter loves to call out the names of all the characters on each page. "Doc Ock!" "Kraven the Hunter!" "Mysterio!" We've read this book on-and-off for several months but lately something interesting has been happening. When she sees a page where Spider-Man is punching the bad guy (example below), she scolds, "That's not OK, Spider-Man! You shouldn't hit anybody!!" She's even started referring to Spider-Man as "naughty" and "the bad guy."

And based on everything she hears from her parents and teachers, she's right: It's not OK to hit people. We won't tolerate her pushing her brother or taking things from him, so why is it OK for Spider-Man to use force to get what he wants? (Yes, the situations are different, but try explaining the notion of self-defense to a three-year-old. Soon everything she did would be in self-defense.)

It's not just superhero stories that have made me uneasy lately. I'm also bothered by the Disney princess movies where it always seems that the female has to give up her culture or heritage so she can get married to the handsome prince. Is that really a message we want to reinforce for our daughters, that their unique backgrounds and interests should be cast aside when they find a man, that their ultimate goal in life should be to become a beautiful bride?

I don't have any answers here — just the usual random thoughts. But I'd be interested to hear others' feedback: Do you think superheroes (or princesses or other types of stories) can be harmful to children's psyches? I'm not banning all superhero imagery at home. My daughter still likes superheroes, and I don't want to discourage that interest completely. For example, another one of her current interests is looking at the Arthur Adams Marvel Heroes and Villains print in my office and naming all the characters. She can name almost all of them after just a couple practice sessions, and I think that's pretty neat. Besides, I tell myself, I was raised on a steady diet of superheroes and I turned out OK (I think). But having kids does make me reconsider things that before I was completely blasé about.

One final anecdote: On the day that the school sent home the letter, I went to pick up my daughter and one of her male classmates ran up to me. "Look what I made!" he proudly exclaimed as he help up a Lego creation that looked like a sword or a cross to me. "That's great! What is it?" I asked. "It's Iron Man!" he responded, and he then ran around the room holding the "figure" aloft, making whooshing sounds. So you can take the superhero imagery off of kids' shirts, but you can't take the superhero imagery out of their heads.

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