Now is the Time that Kids Need Their Superheroes

Now is the Time that Kids Need Their Superheroes

Monitoring Desk

If Captain America can defeat the Red Skull, a child can conquer her anxiety of a Zoom class.

On a weekday morning in March, early into the pandemic, my 4-year-old daughter refused to join her preschool class on Zoom. Uninterested in seeing the faces of her friends and teachers, whom she had to abruptly say goodbye to only a week earlier, she instead started digging through her bin of dress-up clothes.

I tried to lure her back to the class, even bribing her with the promise of a special dessert. She shook her head. “I’m shy,” she said and then pulled out the Captain America costume that lay beneath a frilly princess dress. She looked at me, the helmet in one hand and blue body suit in the other, an epiphany sparking behind her eyes.

In 1939, my grandfather Joe Simon and fellow artist Jack Kirby created Captain America in response to the horrors overtaking Europe. America had not yet entered World War II and the country was divided over whether the United States should step in. In February, two days before George Washington’s birthday, a pro-Nazi organization called the German American Bund drew a crowd of over 20,000 to an event billed as a pro-America rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden; Nazi sympathizers hailed Hitler and barked hate toward Jewish immigrants.

My grandfather and Kirby wanted to create a character to make the powerless feel powerful, a beacon of light for those who felt helpless, who may have had family members in Europe. My grandfather’s first sketch of Captain America is one of my favorites — Captain America has one hand raised and the other is holding a shield decorated with stars and stripes. It’s a simple sketch, but for me it feels magical. It was the first sketch of what would become my talisman.

During my adolescence, in 1980s New York City, uneasiness permeated my life — when I watched a young couple mugged in the orange light of fall, or a woman beg for her life as a man beat her against a parked car. Living in a 550-square-foot apartment that held our family of five, I was desperate for an escape, a place to breathe.

Forty blocks south, in Daddy Joe’s apartment, there was a sense of peace among the smells of cigar smoke and old coffee grounds. He and the characters he created who adorned his walls, including Fighting American, The Fly and Captain America, were always there for me. Daddy Joe was my own superhero, his powers activated by gestures as simple as his standing in the kitchen sprinkling farfalle into soup. When I watched him get lost in work at his drawing table, the city seemed to quiet, my teenage frustrations left uptown.

After he died in 2011, it was Captain America and his shield that served as my talisman and comforted me. I wore a Captain America shirt during my first pregnancy test, and later while getting an early ultrasound after an unsuccessful second pregnancy. This past spring Captain America watched over my family from the living room wall while we stayed home for months, hiding from the virus. When we leave the house now, he appears on T-shirts amid masked faces, reminding me, and now my daughter, that there is still hope to be found.

My daughter and I aren’t alone in our need for a reassuring talisman. In April, Guy Trebay wrote about magical thinking and the “discernible beneficial effects to be found in our fascination with talismans, luck charms” during difficult times. Magical thinking is defined as the belief that an object, action or circumstance not logically related to a course of events can influence its outcome.

For children these objects can be imaginary friends or fictional characters — including superheroes with their storied bravery and promise of indestructibility. With Covid-19 keeping kids away from friends and school, magical thinking allows kids to use superheroes to find the confidence, strength and perseverance they need.

If Captain America can defeat the Red Skull, a child can conquer her anxiety of a Zoom class.

The power of magical thinking

According to Jacqueline D. Woolley, a professor of psychology and director of the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, magical thinking peaks in children between the ages of 3 and 8. Woolley explained that magical thinking is about both what kids do, like play pretend or have imaginary companions, and also the characters that kids believe in, like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. Dr. Woolley noted that the work of developmental psychologists like Marjorie Taylor at the University of Oregon, suggest that having imaginary friends or pretending to be superheroes can have a protective effect on kids.

Janina Scarlet, now a clinical psychologist, was 3 years old when the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded 180 miles from her home, resulting in years of treatment for radiation poisoning. Nine years later, with the Soviet Union collapsed, her family escaped anti-Semitic persecution and arrived in the United States as refugees. She had fled danger, but she was still dealing with the trauma of her past, and now bullying from classmates for being different.

 “When I was 16, I saw a movie that forever changed my life, and that was the X-Men,” Dr. Scarlet said. “I saw these fictional characters who were prejudiced against for being different — many of them had a genetic mutation that made them special.” Finding commonality in the X-Men and realizing these stories could help people find confidence inspired her to incorporate pop culture into evidenced-based therapy. Her youngest patient to date, an 8-year-old boy dealing with the death of his pet hamster, learned to process grief and find strength by pretending to be Batman.

“What I have found when I teach superhero therapy all over the world, is that stories connect people. Connection is necessary for survival,” she said.

A 2016 study led by Rachel White of Hamilton College and Stephanie Carlson of the University of Michigan, titled “The Batman Effect,” further demonstrates the power of superheroes. The study showed that kids were better able to persevere on difficult tasks when they imagined themselves as their favorite character.

Superheroes or bad guys?

But it hasn’t been an easy road for superheroes, who have also faced criticism over the years. In 1954, a comic book trade group created a voluntary code of conduct to answer fears that comics caused kids to become delinquents. More recently, a 2017 study led by psychologist Sarah Coyne of Brigham Young University evaluated 240 preschoolers at two points in time, one year apart. They found that preschooler’s engagement with superheroes was related to an increase in physical and relational aggression.

Dr. Woolley and Dr. Scarlet disagree. “I don’t know how well they controlled for initial levels of aggression,” said Dr. Woolley of the Brigham Young study, adding that other studies on the effects of violent movies and television on kids are very controversial. “One of the things they couldn’t rule out from those studies was that kids who are aggressive naturally are more attracted to violent TV,” she said.

Dr. Scarlet added that, for a lot of these studies, children watch a specific clip, as opposed to watching the entire film. “I wonder how different the outcome would be if the children saw why the characters were fighting in the first place,” she said. Both Dr. Woolley and Dr. Scarlet agree that if a child reacts negatively, it can be a teachable moment for parents.

T. Andrew Wahl, a journalist and comic book historian, said that he fully supports his own kids looking up to superheroes. “The stories introduce children to the problems of the real world, in a way that allows them to not be disempowered by them,” he said, adding that superheroes allow kids to see themselves in a heroic role.

Captain America to the rescue!

When my daughter was first learning to talk, I pointed to our framed Captain America sketch on the living room wall and told her “DaDa Joe.” Now when she spots Captain America on a T-shirt or toddler’s sneakers she points excitedly, thrilled to see him — like catching a shooting star darting across the night sky. Our shared talisman is a great choice, according to Wahl.

“The origins of Captain America were about making little Jewish kids around the world feel safer in light of the rise of Nazism. The entire Golden Age of comic books was very much about that larger-than-life heroism that the average person wished they had — Captain America is the classic example.”

That morning in March, my daughter finally joined the Zoom class, but it was only after her Captain America mask was on securely, her blonde curls sticking out the sides and her blue suit Velcroed in the back. She stood in front of the computer with a new sense of confidence, the smile of a child saved by magical thinking.


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