Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Superheroes, princesses and preschoolers

Welcome to the March 2014 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Everyday Superheroes
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have talked about the remarkable people and characteristics that have touched their lives. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

“N. likes Batman, but I like Spider-Man better. Spider-Man is soooo cool.”

In a long, unprompted monologue, Ezra shared this preference as we drove home from preschool. Amanda and I didn’t add anything to the conversation, but listened to his passionate opinion about which was the best superhero.

I found this conversation fascinating for several reasons. I’m kind of a geek. I love comic books and superheroes. Amanda and I rarely go to the movies, and when we do I am most likely convincing her to see the latest superhero brought to the big screen. So, I was really interested in listening to Ezra’s thoughts on why he preferred one superhero over another. I was proud that, like his dad, he favored Marvel Comics’ characters over DC - “Make mine Marvel!” - but mostly I was confused.

Where did this sudden love of Spider-Man come from? Though I enjoy the superhero genre this is not something I have shared with Ezra. We do not pretend to be the Avengers, he does not wear shirts with Superman’s insignia, and he has never seen a superhero cartoon or movie - unless you count PBS’s Super Why!

Amanda and I agreed to avoid superhero culture during Ezra’s first several years of life. We knew, as a male child, superheroes would be the default characters he would be bombarded with by marketers, peers, and well-meaning friends and family, but wished to delay his exposure as long as possible.

Though comic book superheroes are associated with children’s entertainment, many of their storylines, personalities, and actions are not really age appropriate for young kids. This issue has become more prevalent as the genre has transitioned to more mainstream and adult audiences. The Batman I loved watching as a child in the 1960s television series, the SuperFriends cartoon, and guest starring on Scooby Doo, cannot be found in The Dark Knight movie. Yet, the Batman in this PG-13 movie still has a toy line. Though more child-friendly versions of that character still exist, explaining to a four-year-old why he cannot watch a movie starring his favorite cartoon character because it is for grown-ups seems like an argument I should and can avoid for now.

We also do not want Ezra’s early play experiences to have strong gendered messaging. Sure, there are female superheroes, but I do not think anyone denies that superheroes are heavily targeted to a male audience. The characters are designed for young boys to imagine themselves in the superheroes role.

Princess culture and its effect on young girls is a common source of discussion and stress among parents. I have wondered why there is not a similar dialog about superheroes. Though superheroes lack some of the issues that bother people about princesses – the characters are more developed and show more initiative than princesses – their influence on gender perceptions warrants some discussion. We do not want princesses teaching girls that to have a happy ending a woman needs to be passive, co-dependent, and obsessed with beauty. Are we not as concerned that boys are being told that real men are hyper-masculine, with physiques as unrealistic as any princess, and that they must solve all problems themselves, primarily through violence?

The roles of princess and superhero are dependent upon each other to exist, yet we only complain about one half of the equation. Superman needs his princess, Lois Lane, to save, and Sleeping Beauty needs her prince with superpowers nobody else possesses (the power of true love?) to wake her. Society seems to acknowledge that girls should be convinced that being the princess in distress is not something to strive for, but being the person who must always save the day also seems exhausting. Shouldn’t we encourage our children to possess the good traits found in both of these characters: to be self-reliant, but not to be ashamed of needing help from others; to be romantic, but not to link your happiness entirely to relationships; to be confident in how you look, but also finding your particular strengths?

Though Amanda and I do not actively encourage superhero play and entertainment, we realize its importance in pop culture. We know Ezra is exposed to both superheroes and princesses outside our home, and want to encourage him to relate to his peer groups. The older he becomes the more influence his friends will have on his interests, but before Ezra becomes too acquainted with superheroes we want him to have a more grounded idea at what makes someone a hero and a good person.

You do not need to be super to be a hero. A hero is someone who helps society or someone in need. A hero's deeds are often small and do not need to save the world to be important. You do not need super-strength, magic rings, or technology only available to a billionaire to help people. A high dose of gamma radiation would not make you a stronger person, it would just give you cancer. Violence is rarely if ever helpful. Heroes sometimes need to ask for help.

Most importantly, we want Ezra to understand that he can be a hero in real life before he becomes a superhero in play. Once he is capable of understanding this he will be ready to enter the fictional, comic book world of superheroes, and I will be excited to share that world with him. Eventually, Amanda might tire of watching comic book movies with me. I will be glad to have Ezra step in and save the day.


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be updated by afternoon March 11 with all the carnival links.)

  • I Am A Super Hero — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama shares how she learned the hard way exactly what it means to be a real super hero and not a burned out shell of a human simply pretending to be one.
  • Quiet Heroics — Heroism doesn't have to be big and bold. Read how Jorje of Momma Jorje is a quiet hero…and how you probably are, too.
  • Not a Bang, but a Whisper {Carnival of Natural Parenting} — Meegs at A New Day talks about the different types of "superheroes," ones that come in with a bang and ones that come in with a whisper.
  • Silent courage of motherhood in rural Cambodia — Nathalie at Kampuchea Crossings marvels at how rural Khmer women defy the odds in childbirth.
  • Super PappyMother Goutte's little boy met a superhero in checked slippers and Volkswagen Polo, his grand dad: Super Pappy!
  • An Open Letter to Batman — Kati at The Best Things challenges Batman to hold up his end of the deal, in the name of social justice, civic duty, and a little boy named Babe-O!
  • My Village — Kellie at Our Mindful Life reflects on the people who helped her to become her best self.
  • 5 Lessons My Kids Taught Me — Children are amazing teachers, when we only stop to listen. They remind us to choose happiness, to delight in the small things, to let go and forgive. There is so much we can learn from our children. Justine at The Lone Home Ranger shares a few of the lessons she's learned.
  • Could you use some superpowers? — Tat at Mum in search shares a fun activity to help you connect with your own superpowers.
  • Like Fire Engines — Tam at tinsenpup tells the story of the day she saw a surprising superhero lurking in the guise of her not entirely mild-mannered four-year-old daughter.
  • Everyday Superheroes — Erica at ChildOrganics shares her list of Walker Warburg Syndrome Superheroes that have touched her life forever.
  • My Superhero of the Week: Nancy GallagherTribal Mama muses about the transcendent things her superhero mom has done.
  • My choice in natural birth does not make me a super hero — Bianca, The Pierogie Mama, discusses her thoughts on her experience with the perception of natural birth and putting those mamas on a different level. Does giving birth naturally give cause for an extra pat on the back? No! All mamas, no matter how they birth, are superheroes.
  • Someone's Hero — Sometimes being a parent means pretending to be a grown-up, but it always means you are someone's hero. Read Mandy's lament at Living Peacefully with Children.
  • Growing into a Super Hero — Casey at Joyful Courage shares how owning our behavior and choosing to be a better parent, a better person, is an act of courage.
  • A Math Superhero — Kerry at City Kids Homeschooling writes that her 7-year-old daughter's superhero is an MIT-trained mathematician.
  • It Starts With Truffula Trees And Tulips — Luschka of Diary of a First Child takes a hard look at the realities of her relationship with her mother, and through this post goes on a journey of discovery that ends in a surprise realisation for her.
  • We Don't Need an Excuse — Maria Kang (aka "Hot Mom") asks women #WhatsYourExcuse for not being in shape? Dionna at Code Name: Mama asks Hot Mom what her excuse is for not devoting her life to charity work, or fostering dozens of stray dogs each year, or advocating for the needs of others. Better yet, Code Name: Mama says, how about we realize that every woman has her own priorities. Focus on your own, and stop judging others for theirs.
  • It's not heroic when you're living it — Lauren at Hobo Mama knows from the inside that homeschooling does not take a hero, and that much of what we choose as parents is simply what works best for us.
  • Superheroes, princesses and preschoolers — Garry at Postilius discusses why his preschool-age son is not ready for comic book superheroes.
  • The Loving Parents of Children with Special Needs – Everyday Superheroes — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now shares posts with resources for parents of children with special needs along with posts to help others know how to support parents of children with special needs.
  • Everyday Empathy — Mommy Giraffe of Little Green Giraffe shares why her secret superpower is everyday empathy.
  • The Simplicity of Being a Superhero — Ana at Panda & Ananaso explains what superheroes mean to her wise three-year-old.
  • My Father, The Hero — Fathers are pretty amazing; find out why Christine at The Erudite Mom thinks hers is the bees knees.


Lauren Wayne said...

Really thoughtful post. As the mother of two boys who are already immersed in superhero lore, it's really intriguing to think about superheroes as the flip side to princesses. I do love superhero movies, and sharing in those fantasies with my husband and kid, but I definitely know that's not "real life." But do they? Thanks for something to think through!

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

I wish I would have read this before my own son was old enough to be interest in superheroes :) I tried so hard to keep all characters away from him, but grandparents overrode that desire, and he was soon steeped in Spiderman, Superman, and the like. Now that we have a daughter and I'm much more actively fighting the princess stereotype, I do wish I would have tried harder to keep superhero stereotypes away from my impressionable kiddo.

Garry said...

Before Ezra was born we, like you, Dionna, planned to keep all characters away from him, but also discovered that wasn’t possible. In fact, when he began talking his the first proper noun he said was “Elmo” even though he had never even watched an episode of Sesame Street.

We have been more successful at keeping superhero culture at bay, but know that is also coming to an end. His conversations after preschool about Spider-man have continued, and he actually brought up the question you asked, Lauren, - about whether our kids know whether or not superheroes are “real life.”

Ezra asked if Spider-man was real. When I answered no, he disagreed. He insisted I was wrong and that Spider-man comes out at night, in the town where we live in and kills bad guys. He knows this is true because his friend’s mom “saw him and took a picture.” Rather than argue, I just clarified that he doesn’t kill the bad guys but catches them for the police.