Recently we shared the findings of a study out of Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, on how children are more focused on boring tasks when engaged in role-play as superheroes known for perseverance. In the Wednesday, February 8, 2017, issue of the Wall Street Journal author Sue Shellenbarger discusses how parents can go beyond teaching their children perseverance and transform superhero role-play into many more important lessons. Whether simply pretending to be headstrong superhero or going as far as suiting up as their favorite character, acting as a superhero has numerous psychological benefits for children ranging from higher SAT scores to superior emotional regulation.
Many representations of superheroes are both action and violence heavy, thus it is important for parents to guide their children’s experience “to go beyond the action imagery children see in videos and films and help them focus on superheroes’ motivations and character.” By explaining the positive traits a superhero has, parents help their children to look beyond the fighting and drama to understand what qualities make them truly estimable people. Children can use this understanding to emulate positive characteristics in their own lives and that ultimately translate into academic and social success.
“Children encouraged to don a cape and pretend to be a patient, strong-willed superhero such as Superman or Batman may be able to persevere at boring tasks and wait longer for rewards. These pivotal skills are linked in research to better SAT scores, grades and social skills in adolescence.”
According to Dr. Stewart Shanker, author of “Self Reg” and emeritus professor of psychology and philosophy at York University in Toronto, such role-play can even benefit children’s mental health.
“Pretend play can reduce anxiety and stress, helping children regulate their emotions… It also activates the brain’s reward system, transforming an onerous task into something pleasurable.”
In a 2011 study out of Tel Aviv University in Israel, researchers led by professor of social development, Rachel Karniol, found similar results in children as early as preschool.
“Preschoolers [who] donned a superman cape and were told the superhero had special powers and lots of patience were more than seven times more likely to be able to wait 20 minutes for a desired snack, compared to the children who received no cape or instructions.”
Pediatrician and author, Dr. Laura Jana, attributes these findings to the development of one essential life skill – empathy. This skill is necessary for children to succeed socially and can also be useful at home, as it is key component of managing conflict.
“Impersonating a superhero helps children learn to see things from another’s perspective, a form of empathy that is an important foundational skill for success in adulthood… The child is literally starting to train the brain to think like, be like and act like someone else.”
Next time your child has to face a challenging task – like learning a new sport or enduring a long travel day – consider reaching for the cape. It’s likely that you will see your little hero have increased motivation, confidence, patience and even cooperation. If dressing up isn’t an option, encourage children to simply think like a superhero to positively influence their behavior. While your child enjoys being free to act as their favorite superhero, they’ll be developing necessary skills to help them succeed academically, socially and mentally. So next time a challenging task arises, ask your child, “What would Superman do?”
– Claire Jaicks
Shellenbarger, S. (2017, February 07). Superhero Costumes Come to Parents’ Rescue. Retrieved February 21, 2017,
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.