Why is it important for children to pretend to be superheroes?

Some friends and I were talking about a very clever Walmart ad that is currently running. Since it is Halloween season, the ad shows thrilled kids putting on superhero outfits and basically becoming those superheroes.

There is power in dressing up

diane sitting on steps with three kidsI remember how excited my grandsons were when we picked out their Halloween costumes. I recall how eager they were to try them then would wear them for hours while they took on the characters of their costumes—superheroes like the Ninja Turtles or Superman.

I started thinking about how important it can be for children to have a way to escape into the imaginary world of being a superhero or any character that is either admired or even feared. It can be powerful for some children to put on a witch’s outfit, or maybe a gangster’s.

By becoming a character of something they have feared, they can feel like they are overtaking and in control of those fears by assuming that feared persona.

As children develop, they become aware of how little power they actually have in a world run by adults.

Up until the age of eight or nine, children spend a great deal of time being highly imaginative. The very young human brain is really wired to embrace a world of make-believe. Obviously, children and adults can be quite imaginative, but for the younger child, the line between real and imagined is blurred.

It can be healthy for children to express some of their fears as well as some of their need for being super strong and powerful when they dress up in some kind of costume.

Having opportunities to experience these emotions can build self-confidence as a result of experiencing the power of the persona they are embracing through the costume.

Even though children obviously are not powerful, they can feel so as they begin to understand what power feels like through this sort of artificial experience. So, it turns out that holidays like Halloween that seem straightforward on the surface can actually have an interestingly positive developmental impact on children.

A young boy wearing a red superhero cape And even after all the candy has been eaten and the pumpkins have shriveled up, allowing children to continue to play with their costumes as well as other dress up outfits is a way to nurture their imaginations, their sense of power and confidence.

After all, think of how many adult costumes we wear to represent some meaningful activity: wedding attire, sports outfits, prom dresses and tuxedos. When we put on these kinds of costumes, we often feel a sense of power as well as connection that boosts our self-esteem and brings us happiness.

It’s the same–even more pronounced for children.

And please, if you haven’t seen the 2012 Super Bowl ad with the child dressed in a Darth Vader costume, it’s a must-see!

Invitation for Reflection

1. Do you remember dressing up for Halloween? How did you feel when you put on a mask or other costume?
2. Maybe you dressed up in adult clothes when you were little– a cowboy outfit and hat, or a dress of your mother’s along with high-heeled shoes? How did that make you feel?
3. What have you observed when your children have worn costumes? Can you now see how important it can be for them to experience the powers of becoming someone else – besides themselves- by being able to dress up?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute, Lakeside

Note: An outstanding book I often refer to is Selma Freiberg’s The Magic Years in which she describes what goes on for young children as they gradually learn to differentiate their make-believe worlds from the real world.