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Is it wrong for little boys and girls to love superheroes? Is it wrong for parents to share the superheroes of their past with their young children? Are the superheroes portrayed in the same way? Why does it matter?

While many parents of today grew up reading superhero comics and watching the 1970’s versions of superheroes cartoons, the comics and cartoons of today are far more graphic and realistic and are marketed to unprecedented levels.

In 1984 the guidelines for what was allowable on children’s television were relaxed and our young parents of today were exposed to increasingly violent and explicit programming that was remarkably different than the programming of the 1970s.

A Generation X parent and a Generation Y parent had very different exposures partially due to deregulation of advertising rules for children but also due to the rapid increase in technology making cartoons far more realistic and dynamic.

Yet, superheroes remain as popular as ever—perhaps even more so. Children of all generations love superheroes—as far back as Homer and even further back to Gilgamesh and on into the distant past, heroes have been adored. Is there something wrong with this?

Our Millenial children not only have fantastic computer animation which creates a very graphic and realistic quality to the programming, but there is ready access to video using smartphones, DVD systems in cars, televisions in children’s bedrooms, ipads and massive orchestrated marketing campaigns making it almost impossible not to be exposed to the superhero culture daily. So, what’s the big deal? Why does it matter?

While it seems that it is generally known that the glorification of superheroes and exposure to media portraying superheroes is generally harmful to young children, preschoolers and young elementary children are coming to school and child care with great knowledge of and interest in superheroes.

Enthusiastic parents who loved the Batman of yesteryear are showing the modern versions of superhero shows to their young children but due to the improvements in computer animation and the availability of shows through widespread access we have created a whole new world for the developing child. The brain is still developing the same way it did before the advent of books, comics, tv and movies, so how does the brain make sense of our highly media exposed lives?

Did you know that young boys, under the age of 8-10 years are generally not able to separate fact from fiction and reality from fantasy? The young child’s brain is simply not developed enough to do this. While an older elementary student or teen understands that a superhero and his/her feats of strength are fictional a young child is unable to truly comprehend that the hero is not real or that the acts (usually fighting) in which the hero engages are at best highly improbable (if not impossible) and are not safe or appropriate to copy.

Boys and girls worldwide normally play games involving chase, capture and rescue. This seems to have happened throughout time and must have some sort of primal link. Young children have always been fascinated with heroes of all sorts, kings, queens, knights, police officers, fire fighters, etc.

They always have and probably always will: however studies are showing that the increase in superhero (fighting) games and role-playing imaginative games in young children have had an increasingly violent trend since the mid-1980s. So what does this mean for your young child?

After working with young children for many years, I am very concerned about the early exposure of young children to the modern and often PG or PG13 or R rated movies the children talk about seeing. It is not unusual for a preschool to have a few children in each class who have seen the modern Batman, Ironman or other superhero movies as well as many “classic” horror movies such as, Poltergeist.

Unfortunately, the children who have seen these movies re-enact them with their more innocent peers. The peers then develop a fascination with superheroes, fighting games, role-playing superhero games, and parents wonder where it all comes from. All too often, I have parents who tell me their child has not seen a particular movie however; their child knows all about it and is acting it out.

This is happening in most schools and care centers across America. What we don’t realize is the mass marketing of products and shows is everywhere, at the gas station, the grocery, restaurants, and more. Most teachers understand the need for chase, rescue and capture games, but are increasingly bothered by the increase in violence levels in play due to superhero play.

How do you know when your child is ready to be exposed to superheroes in more than just a casual way? When your child begins to seriously question in a critical manner the existence of a certain holiday personality who is scheduled to appear with gifts every December, your child is able to separate fact from fiction and to critically think about what is real and what is not. Typically it happens between age 8 and 10 which is also the time period in which it is more appropriate to allow your superhero enthusiast to be exposed to the more modern programming.

If your young child is already hooked and begging to see superhero programming, focus on the oldies as they are better designed for the young brain. Better yet, tell them that they may start watching when they are older.

What if your young child has already seen every superhero show and has a bedroom floor littered with superhero figurines? Try prying his superhero lunch box out of his/her hands and exposing him/her to a variety of positive role models and age appropriate programming and books. There’s still room for Batman or Spiderman in a young child’s life, but balance it with other positive non-trademarked influences and a lot of discussions about true heroes.

One interesting study showed that boys who are highly interested in superheroes and have a strong positive relationship with their mothers remain less negatively impacted by superhero fascinations. So moms, talk with your sons and remain close over the years and you will create a super-son who will grow up to be a hero in the eyes of others.

Fathers, do the same with your daughters to help her develop into Wonder Woman!

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