by Mary Barr Rhodes

Ronin, my grandson, is three and absolutely loves Super Heroes. His Dad, Jesse, grew up playing with Marvel action figures, so he is passing down all of the stories to Ronin. I am amazed as I listen to Jesse explain the characters to Ronin. They all have their stories, and Ronin knows them all. He tells me about the good guy and the bad guy and why they are battle each other. Even at this early age, he always makes me be the bad guy.

Jesse is teaching Ronin what is noble, what is good, and what is worth striving for. He talks about specific characteristics that are admirable and worth emulating, and that heroes are just people, like us, who are helping other people, and who are making a difference in the world. 

As I listen, I wonder if Jesse even realizes that he is teaching Ronin about such virtues as honesty, civility, courage, perseverance, loyalty, self-restraint, compassion, tolerance, acceptance, fairness, respect, and responsibility. But then I hear Ronin say, “I am courageous,” then taking his superhero stance as he prepares for battle. Jesse plays along, encouraging his son to embody the virtues of Captain America, Leonardo, or a local firefighter. The learning comes in the actual play. Jesse communicates values and beliefs with a real superhero pow! 

Storytelling comes alive with superheroes. Such dynamic stories open the door to talk about kindness and respect, honesty and trust, and helping those less fortunate than ourselves. Ronin may not completely understand that being generous ultimately brings us happiness, but he certainly understands that superheroes spread goodwill. Before he can read, Ronin has learned values and beliefs through the oral tradition of storytelling.

Psychologists warn parents that children need to know the difference between the real world and the fantasy world. We certainly don’t want Ronin jumping out windows trying to fly or participating in evil play. So, he does need to realize the difference between the real world and the fantasy superhero land. I think fantasy play has to be balanced by time to explore the real world with his bug box in hand, his microscope, and his shovel. Then, he learns to play in both worlds. 

Fantasy is a great introduction to the laws of physics. Superheroes defy the normal laws of motion, gravity, and light, to name a few. Ronin has entered into dialogue about mass and energy. And, most critically, Ronin is beginning to understand the difference in natural law and the clearly defined laws of magic. Possibly in the future, he will enter conversations about art, science, and religion with such confidence.

As the grandmother, I was concerned that even though superheroes are portrayed through cartoons, Ronin is introduced to violence and even weaponry. Our world is filled with violence each day and as parents and grandparents, our role is to teach our children to resist violence. Most importantly, children need to learn at an early age to talk about their emotions and to learn to deal with them in non-violent ways. Children are taught how to react by their parents. So, if children are raised in a safe and loving home, receive constant attention and supervision, they will react lovingly with compassion for themselves and others. As a result, Ronin will be armed with the communication skills to verbally battle against evil. 

As Ronin matures, name-calling, bullying, and physical violence may threaten Ronin’s well-being. There are concerns for boys, in particular, that they may see themselves as heroes or victims. However, through parental conversations, they can realize that there is a full spectrum of stories that they can tell themselves. They get to choose if they want to be good or evil, a hero or a victim. As they develop, these early conversations can grow into more mature conversations about their self-worth and well-being. Hopefully, he will remember what the superheroes taught him . . . that sometimes you have to be brave enough to stand up against evil. 

Are superheroes teaching consumerism as well? Without a doubt, superheroes are marketing ploys. Ronin always wants another action figure, a supporting character or weapon. He loves the movies, the video games, the comic books, and so on. His costume box is growing each year. So, consumerism is being learned early. Parents can get caught up in that as well. But, they can actually use this desire for a new superhero to teach their children about healthy buying habits.

Overall, I think superheroes are the good guys. Fantasy teaches children to dream big. Ronin is able to communicate about his values and his beliefs at a very early age. He understands metaphor and how to use it in other applications. Developing a sense of play is a trait that is valued in all creative work. Not only is Ronin communicating about superheroes; they are now showing up in his artwork. As the grandmother looking in, I am thrilled to see Ronin’s imagination soaring to new heights each day. 

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” - Thoreau