What is the difference between heroes and role models, and how important are they to our children? Nothing beats watching a superhero do what they do best. Well, at least this is true for our kids, as they watch their favourite crusader zip through the air to stop a plane from plummeting to the earth and bursting into flames and bits of debris. Whether it is Wonder Woman or Superman, Captain America or Captain Marvel, Catwoman or Batman, kids sit mesmerised when their heroes fill the screen.
As soon as the heroic spectacle has concluded, the kids instantly don capes and run around the house like hooligans, though they feel like heroes. Soon they bring the fight for world domination to you and playtime moves into a far more dramatic version of the movie they had just watched.
This is the point where their fantasy world and the real world merge. As parents, we are tasked with the integration of these two different worlds. We have to understand the importance of role-playing, but also teach our children about the limitations of the real world.
Dr Jordan B Peterson, acclaimed and controversial Canadian clinical psychologist, stresses the need to have rough-and-tumble play with your kids. He says that the benefits of wrestling are not just confined to basic physical advancement. Roughhousing and fooling around obviously does develop fine and gross motor skills, but there is something else in the play fighting and tumbling that will benefit your child in the years to come.
They learn about their own limits and the limits of others. They might think that mommy is Bumblebee, the heroic Transformer, or that daddy’s roars indicate that he is about to turn green and transform into The Hulk. But it is important for them to realise that when they poke daddy in the eye or accidentally kick mommy in the tummy, that it causes discomfort or agony.
Likewise, they experience pain when they fall to the ground in a bad way, roll into the couch’s armrest, or bump their head during the physical interaction. Developing these important boundaries around the abilities of their bodies is vital for young kids. Not only do they learn that mommy and daddy can actually get hurt themselves, but they quickly learn about how far they will allow themselves to be pushed before pain would become a possibility.
“Role models and mentors are real people who are familiar to you, with real answers to real problems […] Superheroes, on the other hand, are beings of miraculous fancy and unfathomable wonder…”
Simultaneously, parents are afforded the opportunity to deal with the “superhero versus role model” problem. By role models and mentors, I do not mean celebrities or high-profile figures Kardashians or Lady Gaga or Steve Jobs. Role models and mentors are real people who are familiar to you, with real answers to real problems. Granted, we may only encounter them later in life but, in some way, they are always present to shell out wise words and subtle guidance, often without us being aware of it.
Superheroes, on the other hand, are beings of miraculous fancy and unfathomable wonder, who can leap off tall buildings, burst into flight at a whim, lift cars up with their bare hands, shoot laser beams from their eyes, and perform even more outrageous feats. They are nearly indestructible, conquer the worst villains and rescue the damsel in distress while still managing to save the world from near destruction.
Children are looking to the parents to help them come to terms with this touch-and-play, dream-and-fly transition, where you help them to separate make-believe and actuality. This does not mean we have to crush their dreams and tell them that Santa isn’t real (though, when they reach 21 you should probably let that cat out of the bag).
It simply means we need to evenly distribute fantasy and caution, and channel it correctly. The more we play with our children and the more we engage with them, the more we are likely to notice when there is an opportunity to show them that they can embrace and enjoy both worlds. They can play in the one and live in the other. You can be their perfect guide through both worlds. What’s more, you could find yourself being that very important first role model for your own child (3).