“Spiderman! Spiderman! Does whatever a spider can!”
A remarkable number of mornings in my home start with that song, lisped adorably by my three year old son as he runs around the living room, striking poses and shooting imaginary webs at various foes. While he is limited in his TV consumption, Spiderman is by and large his favorite cartoon, and he can sit quietly through an episode of web slinging, building crawling, 60’s comic mayhem.
Recently, we went to one of his friend’s birthday parties, another 3 year old who loves Spidey. As the adults waded through the chaos that is a toddler birthday, I swapped stories with my friend about Spiderman and Firestar and the Avengers, glad to find an adult who was as conversant in the Marvel universe as I.
As other moms drifted in and out, she leaned over to me and said “I’m so glad to find someone else that lets their son watch superheroes. Everyone else is judging us.” I had been so caught up that I had missed it—the subtle side eyes and head tilts that women use unconsciously when questioning someone’s parenting decisions. It never occurred to me that superheroes would be out of the ordinary for three year old boys, but this was definitely not my friend’s imagination.
When it comes down to it, why can’t we use superheroes to help our boys? They’re flashy and colorful and far more interesting to your average three year old than most other things. Most super hero cartoons don’t sing or dance or get their theme songs stuck in your head for days on end. Granted, there is some weeding to do: not all comics and superheroes are age appropriate. Like anything else, they exist on a continuum; consider this the disclaimer that no, I am not telling you to read Batman: Year One to your toddler as a bed time story. Might I suggest Dr Seuss or, for the sophisticated toddler, The Hobbit? When I say superheroes for toddlers, I’m thinking the 1960’s animated Spiderman, or any of the DC or Marvel cartoons from that time period. There are even educational shows designed around the “superhero for toddlers” motif. But how do we get from web slinging high school students or Norse legends to Catholic parenthood?
When I was volunteering for a youth group several years ago, one of the program days was about the saints. Several saints were presented under the overarching theme of superheroes—good over evil, sacrifice for noble purposes. Now, small children aren’t going to appreciate why Maximillian Kolbe or Gianna Mola are saints—there is too much about the world that they are blessedly ignorant of for them to truly comprehend what many saints have gone through.
What they can understand is the most elemental parts of sainthood, and that’s where superheroes come in. With a dash of color, my son understands superheroes vs. bad guys. He gets that some behavior is like that of a superhero, and some is more suited to a bad guy. Temper tantrums, for example, have been relegated to the realm of “the bad guy.” When he runs around playing his games of pretend, he has started to focus on helping people in trouble.
Could we get him there without superheroes? Of course—but it might have taken longer. When there are so many cartoons or influences that are milquetoast at best, and antithetical to Catholic belief at worst, why not use what we can? Why not let a little boy relish the idea of using all the power he can to rescue someone in trouble, to defeat the bad guys? As he grows, he’ll get more adventure stories and history and he’ll see that, rather than wandering around in Spandex that could glow in the dark, superheroes look just like him, serving the Good and the True using every talent and tool at their disposal.