Henry Hanks (CNN) — Two of my eldest son’s first words were “Dada” and “Batman.” (Or “Batmah,” at least.)
That should have clued me in that Gilbert was following in his Dad’s footsteps; he was a superhero fan in the making.
From dancing and singing to the “Batman” theme song at age 1 to creating his own super-characters from everyday items around him, he’s been completely enthralled with superheroes. As he grows up, his superheroes are shaping the person he’s becoming.
A fascination with superheroes can benefit a child in many ways, including boosting his self-confidence and making him feel powerful. (And what better day than National Superhero Day, April 28, to celebrate that?)
Gilbert isn’t the only example of the positive powers of superhero worship. In some cases, superheroes can teach children how to be strong.
Cynthia Falardeau of Vero Beach, Florida, has also encouraged her son, Wyatt, to explore superheroes for years, because of the way they changed her childhood for the better.
Before she admired Wonder Woman and Princess Leia, Falardeau was bullied by other kids for her first heroic inspiration, Mary Poppins.
“My two oldest brothers and their neighborhood friends squelched my dreams,” she said. “Their mockery drove me to find comfort in the arms of my mother.”
Her mother encouraged her to pursue a more “daring” character, and soon she discovered Wonder Woman and TV’s Bionic Woman.
Wonder Woman gave her confidence: “She was powerful, beautiful and never broke a sweat!”
Even today, she credits these heroes with some of the things she has accomplished in life.
“I have completed four half-ironman races (70.3 miles) in the past two years,” she said.
“Each time I envision my success, I think of the Bionic Woman or Wonder Woman, and I feel invincible. When I take that first stroke and glide across the water I am energized.”
Now she sees 11-year-old Wyatt finding strength to deal with his problems at school.
“Sometimes Wyatt says that he gets bullied and superheroes give him the confidence to stand up, and tell the teacher,” she said.
“One of his favorites is the Incredible Hulk,” she said.
” ‘I like that Hulk gets angry at the bad guys and he uses kung-fu!’ ” he told his mother.
The recent “Captain America” movie has made the patriotic hero one of Wyatt’s favorites, as well.
When asked by his mother why he likes superheroes so much, he said, “They have super powers, strength, and they are brave. They always do the right things. They battle against evil. Superheroes give you strength!”
Jeff Greenberg, social psychology professor at the University of Arizona, sees this — superheroes giving strength and power — as the key to why kids love superheroes.
“We adults forget how vulnerable we all were as young children,” he said.
“We were little and lacked the physical size and strength and knowledge to protect ourselves and function effectively on our own,” he said. Children first depend on their parents for love and protection. But as they grow up, they start looking to role models who embody the same power and positivity, Greenberg said.
“By identifying with the culture’s heroes and superheroes, children can begin to feel like they are aligning with what is good and can develop their own agency, power, and value in the world,” he said.
Of course, there are always the classic arguments against kids having an interest in superheroes. They’re marketing ploys. They take children out of reality.
Superheroes come with a heaping helping of violence (even if it’s usually “cartoon violence”). And there are also concerns that boys are getting the wrong idea, seeing their future selves as either heroes or victims.
Greenberg said these are valid concerns, but he still sees superheroes as the good guys when it comes to their influence on children.
The answer isn’t to try to control your child’s preferences. Greenberg encourages parents to “be a guiding force by sharing their enjoyment of superheroes, and in age appropriate ways.” Once children understand that these are fictional characters, they can begin to distinguish between how things work in superhero land and how they work in the real world, he said.
Falardeau said superheroes teach her son good lessons on a smaller scale: “I think he is learning that everyone is capable of being extraordinary.”
As my son Gilbert’s superhero playtime has evolved, not only has he developed a sense of morality, his inner positivity has also come out. He sees the villains as capable of turning over a new leaf. He describes them as turning good at times.
Gilbert’s fascination has not gone without some encouragement on my part. I have been a fan of superheroes ever since Spider-Man taught me how to read on “The Electric Company.” It really never left me, from the Batmania of the late ’80s and early ’90s to the resurgence of superhero cinema with “X-Men” and “Spider-Man,” and I’ve been a comics collector off and on for decades.
As far as I’m concerned, I hope superheroes continue to take Gilbert’s imagination up, up and away!