Every day, in the gym, my 4-year-old daughter and her friends save the world by being superheroes. It’s hard to say what the bad guys are doing during gym, but it’s clearly fun to run around trying to catch them.
Last year, she developed a superhero of her own, complete with a name (apparently given to her by another friend). While I am not at liberty to divulge the identity of this superhero, I will tell you that she has the power to blast fire from her hands, create rainbows that serve as jails for bad guys, fly, and, in more recent months, I hear that she may also know how to use The Force. What I like about this superhero is that it has clearly given my daughter confidence, creativity, and inspired her to find out about other superheroes.
My daughter’s exploration of the superhero world came at a time when she had just started to get more comfortable allowing herself to enjoy pretend play, not just at school but also at home, despite her 7-year-old brother’s opinions. Prior to this, she was happy to conform her play to whatever anyone else was playing, in a simple effort to play with them. While the sentiment was nice, we worried that she wouldn’t bring her own ideas and creativity forward.
Since this began, however, she, and not her brother, who likes superheroes but not as much as my daughter does, has been the driving force to learn about different kinds of superheroes from different universes. First, we explained about the difference between Marvel Comics and DC Comics (it was helpful for the kids to understand why Spiderman and Superman never hang out). We watched some old “Batman,” “Superman,” and “Justice League” shows and talked through them. We found that “Justice League” was a little overwhelming for an early start, since it had so many characters to keep track of, though we did appreciate that it had both Wonder Woman and Hawk Girl, as female superhero role models.
Speaking of female superheroes, our daughter has already started questioning Wonder Woman’s scant costume, much to our mixed relief and awkwardness. And what could we say? “Yes, it’s true, that costume seems impractical for fighting bad guys,” or, “It does seem like she would be cold when Wonder Woman is trying to find a bad guy when it’s snowing. Maybe, because she’s a goddess with Amazonian blood, she’s warmer than we think.” Luckily, my daughter seems to have thought it out a little better for her own superhero’s costume; there is more than just underwear.
At the library, we have read simple picture books about Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Spiderman. We later moved on to Reading Level 1 and 2 books that have other superheroes and, eventually, made it to graphic novels that are essentially like the comic books from which many of these characters originated. They started memorizing all the bad guys for each superhero; it was very impressive.
We wanted to demonstrate alternatives to the traditional ideas of superheroes and to try to find a wider breadth of female superheroes. We read the book “Ladybug Girl,” a story about a child who pretends to be a superhero with her friends. We showed them “The Incredibles,” a movie about a family of superheroes (my daughter immediately cast herself as the daughter, Violet, of course, and declared that her brother was Dash). She loves the idea of demonstrating great moral power along with family members and protecting each other.
My daughter’s processing of all this superhero stuff has been fascinating. I will often find her in superhero stance, conducting her own pretend play in the living room. Our meals have been littered with questions about superheroes. When my husband explained that Princess Leia carries a gun so she could protect herself against the bad guys who were trying to kill her, my daughter thought for a moment and then said, “So Princess Leia is a superhero.” Yes, yes she is.
During all of this, I have watched my daughter’s alter-ego grow. It helped her, temporarily, get over her fear of dogs (she has since told me that her superhero character doesn’t like dogs either). Where she previously didn’t speak up for her own opinion, she is now very outspoken. She thinks about the world in a more complex way. She understands that bad guys need to be punished and that, in real life, they go to jail and she takes that idea very seriously. She has planned out with us a detailed escape plan if our house is ever on fire. We are able to use language from the superhero world like the great Spiderman quote, “With great power comes great responsibility,” to talk about things happening in our own world that are harder to understand for a 4-year-old.
In the moments that I see her embodying qualities of certain superhero characters, I can see her demonstrating pieces of the person she is striving to become and understand. And I will give her any amount of capes she needs to continue to do that.