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How superheroes can help when teaching empathy to kids

By Collett Smart - psychologist 2 min read

Despite their flaws or weaknesses (because they all still have those), true superheroes choose altruism over the pursuit of personal wealth and power.

believe that most people have an innate desire to see good in the world. Superhero stories bring to the surface a desire for a world where people are saved, rescued and freed from evil (the villains) through a saviour figure.

In superhero stories, we know that evil is always present, but we also know that it will not prevail in the end. The superhero also gives us someone to aspire to be.

Dr Robin Rosenberg is an American author and psychologist who researches the psychology behind our love of superheroes. She finds that superhero stories fuel our imaginations to look for opportunities to become the best versions of ourselves. They inspire us to “engage in pro-social behaviour; that is, actions that benefit others and may involve some type of sacrifice—of time, energy or other variables”.

Many people relate to superhero characters because one of the “rules” for being a superhero means they will have experienced some sort of trauma, followed by what we now refer to as “post-traumatic growth”. That is, they provide models for coping with and growing through adversity. They take stock of their lives, find meaning in the loss, discover personal strengths, choose a new path and then resolve to help others. Essentially, they use their newfound strengths to become social justice activists.

Another “rule” is that, despite their flaws or weaknesses (because they all still have those), true superheroes choose altruism over the pursuit of personal wealth and power.

The superhero analogy is used as a way of teaching children to stand up to bullies and to display empathy and kindness. And just as superheroes have different powers and abilities, we also talk about how every individual has different strengths and abilities that enable each of us to help others in different ways. (Although displays of brute force to solve issues is something that also needs to be addressed—but that’s another article.)

The superhero ideal has become code for the goal of helping others and for works of social justice today. I am an ambassador for International Justice Mission, because they work tirelessly to do just that: They seek justice for the poor and the enslaved in today’s world.

What might an everyday superhero do?

  • Look for everyday opportunities to reach out to others: A smile, opening a door, giving up a seat, letting someone else go to the front of the line, pulling in a neighbour’s bin . . .
  • Choose kind actions towards a peer others are excluding, teasing or stereotyping.
  • Find social justice groups that you can support. Those who fight for justice for the poor, educate children or support women in poor communities.

Collett Smart is a psychologist, qualified teacher and author with more than 20 years experience. She is mum to three children and appears regularly on national television and radio, as an expert on children and family issues. Collettsmart.com