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Why You're Going to Want to Rethink That Superhero Costume

Photograph by Twenty20

Superhero costumes outsold princess dresses for the first time ever last Halloween. Parents and their kids are apparently opting to emulate the rescuer rather than the rescued.

But all those good intentions have a dark side, according to a new study. Playing superheroes isn't helping kids learn to stand up for others and be kind to their classmates.

Rather, researchers at Brigham Young University found that nearly a quarter of preschoolers surveyed for the study chose a favorite superhero for his or her violent powers. The Incredible Hulk topped the list, mainly for his ability to destroy stuff. The study also found that kids involved in superhero culture acted more aggressively and didn’t help their peers who were being bullied.

Sarah Coyne, BYU family life professor, headed up the study to determine what it is that preschool age boys and girls get out of superhero culture. To do that, her team surveyed 240 preschool children (49 percent male) and their parents to study the associations between superhero engagement and a variety of aggressive, prosocial and defending behaviors. In essence, they wanted to know if superhero culture is associated with positive choices and behaviors or negative outcomes in preschool children.

Should parents ban superhero play from their homes?

“So many preschoolers are into superheroes and so many parents think that the superhero culture will help their kids defend others and be nicer to their peers,” Coyne said in a press release issued by BYU, “but our study shows the exact opposite. Kids pick up on the aggressive themes and not the defending ones.”

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Coyne’s longitudinal research also found that children who frequently engage with superhero culture are more likely to be physically and relationally aggressive one year later. These kids were also not more likely to defend kids being picked on and were not more likely to make positive choices.

Should parents ban superhero play from their homes? Coyne says no.

If young children take away strength and physical aggression, it could be because those are the exciting pieces of the storylines that stand out.

“Have your kids involved in all sorts of activities, and just have superheroes be one of many, many things that they like to do and engage with,” she said.

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Despite the fact that many preschool children watch superhero shows, traditional superhero programs weave violence and prosocial behavior in complicated storylines that can be difficult to process. If young children take away strength and physical aggression, it could be because those are the exciting pieces of the storylines that stand out. Most preschoolers simply don’t have the cognitive ability to pick out the moral from complex stories.

Instead, experts recommend engaging with young children when they are exposed to this kind of media. Talk about the positives and the negatives in the stories, and challenge preschoolers to think of ways to choose their own ending that includes positive (and less aggressive) behavior. Can the Incredible Hulk save the person in distress without smashing everything to pieces?

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The good news is that not all superheroes follow the same formula. There are alternatives to traditional superheroes like Hero Boys, a line of toys and comic books meant to use children’s love of superheroes for celebrating adventure, imagination and limitless potential while reinforcing positive values (honesty, loyalty, humility, compassion and diligence). Karisma Kidz also empowers young children to find their inner-superhero using dolls, games and books.

Bottom line: No need to pack away Superman forever. Open lines of communication about saving the world (or the kid next door) without breaking it to bits (or using your fists), however, are the stuff of heroes.

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