By Daisy Alpert Florin
Oliver, my four-year-old, hung his Batman backpack in his cubby, a still point amidst the chaos of preschool drop off. He was wearing a Batman t-shirt with removable cape, a Spiderman sweatshirt and Justice League sneakers. Underneath, he wore his underwear backwards so the picture of Iron Man was facing forward, inviting what I can only imagine was a wicked wedgie. After hanging up his backpack, which held a Spiderman lunchbox and water bottle, he headed toward his classroom clutching a book we had made by stapling together pictures of Spiderman from the Internet like a talisman. As I watched him walk away, his sneakers lighting up with each step, I wondered what exactly was going on with my youngest son.
Oliver’s fascination with superheroes began about a year and a half ago, shortly before he turned three. What started out as a mild interest in Spiderman, Superman and Batman quickly expanded to include all superheroes both major and minor. His collection is vast, added to by well-meaning family members and friends: toys, books, clothing, games, a piggy bank, dozens of figurines and–the crown jewel–a silkscreen canvas of a dozen superheroes purchased at great expense by Grandpa. Oliver subscribes to a superhero magazine, and we’ve borrowed every book and video from the library numerous times, renewing them again and again and returning them only with great reluctance. Along the way, he has acquired an almost encyclopedic knowledge of all things superhero: costumes, superpowers, alter egos, villains, even the alter egos of the villains. He knows the difference between DC Comics and Marvel and can list the members of the Avengers, X-Men and the Fantastic Four.
And then there are the costumes, colorful, synthetic bodysuits with velcro closures that make the transformation complete. (If you pay extra, you can buy the “muscle version” in which strategically placed foam inserts give your preschooler a bulging six pack and pecs.) Oliver knows wearing costumes to school is a no-no. “When I come home, can I put on my Captain America costume?” he often asks me on the way to school. And sure enough, as soon as he gets home, he will pull the costume on over his clothes, a look of relief on his face, like slipping into a hot bath at the end of a long day. I have taken him on errands in full Batman attire, inviting smiles and comments. “Hey, Batman,” a clerk at Costco once said as we walked past. Oliver grabbed my arm and pulled me toward him. “He thinks I’m Batman!” he whispered.
When I let him, Oliver loves nothing more than to scroll through images of superheroes on the computer. Then he begs me to print them out so he can tape them to his walls.
“Don’t you think that’s scary, Oliver?” I asked him one night, pointing at the picture of Spiderman battling the Lizard that hung over his bed. The Lizard’s claws were sharp and his muscled limbs burst through the seams of his lab coat.
“Nope,” he said. “Remember, Mom? I’m not scared of anything!”
Was that really true? When I taught preschoolers, I often told parents who worried about the aggressiveness of superhero play that this kind of play was normal because it helped children feel safe in a world that is constantly revealing new dangers. But while I understood this intellectually, I worried about my own son. Was his world so scary? Had I done something to make him feel nervous or insecure? When my daughter, Ellie, went through her princess phase, I had similar worries about the extent of her identification with these pampered damsels in distress. Would she grow up with unreasonable expectations of what she could be? But in hindsight–Ellie, now eight, rolls her eyes at princesses–I see that much of my worrying was for nothing and that as much as it irritated me at the time, I actually missed the phase. Would Oliver outgrow superheroes one day as well, trading them in for more dude-like passions like skateboarding and fantasy football? Perhaps.
But one night, while reading Spider-Man’s Worst Enemies for the umpteenth time, I wondered what I was worrying about. Dressed in Batman pajamas, Oliver snuggled close to me as I read, his strawberry blond hair shining in the light of the reading lamp, his thumb planted firmly in his mouth. “Anyone who hurts people or breaks the law is Spider-Man’s enemy,” I read. “As long as Spider-Man is around, his enemies will never win!” So maybe Oliver will never outgrow superheroes and become a guy who goes to Comic-Con dressed like the Green Lantern. Maybe he’ll also grow up to be someone who believes in justice and in the power of good over evil. I looked down at my son, his cherry brown eyes framed with soft eyelashes curved like commas, and reflected on what amounts to my parenting philosophy: What’s the worst that could happen?
Daisy Alpert Florin is a staff Editor at Brain, Child. She lives and works in Connecticut.
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