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Superheroes are Bad for Boys. Or, Possibly Good for Boys.

It looks like the ultimate goal of psychology it to let parents know there is no way to be sure they’re bringing up their kids right. On the heels of two much-talked-about studies about how modern superheroes and their non-stop aggression are bad for adolescent boys, MSNBC.com published an article suggesting that mock fighting and playing that they are superheroes battling super villains are actually good for young boys.

Michael Thompson, a psychologist, says that playtime and actual aggression are firmly separated in the minds of children. Mock fights are perfectly healthy so long as they don’t devolve into real fights. Several teachers in the article agree, although they confess that they break up boys who play at fighting more often than girls at their more peaceful play, to be on the safe side. The two points of view seem completely opposite, but are they as set against each other as they appear?There are some technical differences in the opinions. The MSNBC article is dealing with younger boys, the kind who still ‘play’ at recess. The studies look more at adolescent boys. The superheroes — both officially designated as such in comics and unofficially in movies — to which adolescents are exposed are usually darker than younger boys’ heroes.

“The media has provided boys with particular superheroes to believe in and to attach their fantasies to, but the impulse to be a superhero is innate,”… The heroic themes of boy play have been around for a while, “at least since Homer,” Thompson said. “So I just see boy play as mythic battling.”

Still, the earlier psychological studies took a suspicious view specifically of tough guy antics and the posturing that boys who read about them go throw as a way to imitate them. Sharon Lamb, presenter of one of the studies at the American Psychological Association’s national convention, thought that they would isolate boys, who wouldn’t want to depend on others, or espouse idealistic points of view if they deviated from heroic masculinity, and trap young boys in impossible versions of cartoonish machismo.

Thompson takes the opposite view, saying it’s merely kids having fun, with an added bonus of more diverse social interaction with other kids. Kids may play at being the tough guy, but it’s just play, and that even young children can be able to understand the difference between fantasy and reality.

In a strange way, though, both sides agree on one thing: boys should have as many options available to them as possible. Everyone seems to be arguing for a broader range of play to be allowed. The study authors want superheroes to be kinder and more virtuous to let kids see a wider variety of role models. The teachers and psychologists mentioned in the MSNBC article want less interference with rough play and violent superhero fantasies so that kids can express themselves and learn in as many ways as possible. In short, the optimal social mode for everyone is one which gives kids a variety of personas to emulate and experiment with.

What do you think about the contrasting studies?

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