Science says you can tell a lot about children by their heroes


When I was a kid, playing a superhero on the school playground was a must-do thing. 

After recess was over, it was not easy for me to switch off the hero complex.  So, I took the superhero mentality into the classroom.

When I was a kid, playing a superhero on the school playground was a must-do thing. 

After recess was over, it was not easy for me to switch off the hero complex.  So, I took the superhero mentality into the classroom.

Full of “KaPow!” and “Bam!” inside their minds, this experience is occurring with children across schools. Children are projecting themselves like their favorite superheroes and intertwining it with their personal lives. Often, parents discuss this issue with a fine line of clarity between what is fantasy and reality. Other parents do not mention a distinction until the child figures it out alone.

In the natural scheme of things, six-month-old infants can recognize heroic acts leading to a study done by Kyoto University, suggesting human beings at an early stage of development have an innate sense of justice which might explain why so many people have an admiration for heroes.

Heroes often have automatic reactions to moments that seem surreal, for instance, coming to the defense of a victim. Children mimic what their heroes do.

In neuroscience, mimicking is a feature found in mirror neurons. They allow us to imitate what we see. These cells are responsible for absorbing information that help infants repeat after their parents. Without mirror neurons, actors would not be able to impersonate characters. Singers would not be able to memorize songs on the fly and comedians would not be able to create parodies.

When a child watches an educational program or superhero flick, they will pick up on a lot of lessons along the way. A small problem here is that the moral of a story usually requires understanding the whole picture. Research from Iowa State University suggests children between the ages of two and five will typically not understand the plot of films or how the components of a show are assembled together.

Usually, there is an incorporated element of conflict or bad behavior written into a program or film that teaches a lesson at the end. By watching heroes deal with conflict, children will believe that the way to deal with conflict is by repeating what their heroes do, which usually comes down to being aggressive with a villain. Surprisingly, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, this is the area of a show or film where kids can pick up unwanted behaviors such as physical or relational aggression.

The unintended impact of this storyline directly influences children’s behavior on the playground. They can become the heroes or the villains. Moral judgements are driven by intuition. Intuition is based on emotion. Emotions come from experience. Kids will substitute experience with exposure and familiarity to what they see on TV. Children do not know better, yet.

Heroes on the playground can jump to the defense of a victim like their superheroes. A common behavior seen in children with a hero complex is to become a defender.  Bullying is harassment. Kids in school are faced to participate in harassment as either the defender or the bully. Psychologists from Queen’s University define two types of defenders: (1) the aggressive antisocial kind (most often males) who use aggression towards bullies to counteract further wrongdoing and (2) the nonaggressive prosocial kind (most often females) who befriend and verbally defend the victim and call upon resources like teachers or adults.

Published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, defenders will most often act aggressively and less on prosocial terms. This is partly due to a reduction in cognitive and emotional responses caused by the desensitization associated with consuming violent media. Nevertheless, defenders have heightened moral sensitivity, strong self efficacy and empathy. Defender can perceive pressures on their peers in school and are likely to intervene if a person is being victimized. They are more likely to stop a bully if they were defended from a bully in the past.

A bit like Robin was to Batman, cultural and parental factors influence the development of defending behaviors.

The appropriate way for a parent to encourage a child with a “hero’s journey” is to sit with their children while watching their favorite programming and comment along the way to help the child understand the plot and spot the differences in the real world. Its important to explain which behaviors are favorable or unwelcome. Run a background check on their favorite character’s emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence ranges from apathy, empathy to sympathy. It regards responses that will be automatic but are based on experience. Get the opportunity to teach your child experience. Experience is the intelligence of being emotional at present moments.

If a child likes a hero that smashes things, expect the child to smash. If the child likes a character that uses computer technology to solve puzzles, expect the child to be into software. If a child likes a character that hurts others intentionally, be careful. Guide your children. Heroes on the playground still need a Commissioner Gordon.