Every kid dreams of being a superhero at some point in their life. They imagine that they are all-powerful, brave and unstoppable. They envision that they are capable of changing the world.
But kids are not the only ones who dream about being superheroes. At least once, all of us have imagined being someone else, someone who knows all of the right things to say and do in every situation. Someone who has some kind of “superpower.”
The creation of an alter ego — or the thought of being someone else — is far more common than one would think. The alter egos we create help us get through tough situations and make it easier to deal with anxiety-provoking situations. They help us believe that everything will be okay.
Science says that having an alter ego can empower kids. Researchers refer to this phenomenon as the “Batman effect.” They say that this effect can help improve children’s focus and perseverance.
What science says about the Batman effect
Research has shown that pretending to be someone else can make it easier for your child to cope with difficult situations. In one study that sought to analyze perseverance, 4- and 6-year-old kids were asked to perform an extremely boring task. To make the task even more challenging, iPads with a very interesting age-appropriate video game were placed in close proximity to the research subjects, making it very easy for them to get distracted.
The researchers were interested in analyzing whether encouraging the kids to distance themselves from the task at hand and view it from the position of an outsider would have an impact on their degree of perseverance.
Three perspectives were proposed. The children in the first group were asked to reflect on the task from a first-person point of view (“How am I feeling?” “I am working hard”). The second group was asked to reflect on the task by referring to themselves by their name (“How is Emma feeling?” “Emma is working hard”). Children in the third group were encouraged to reflect on the task as though they were a “superhero” (“How is Batman [or Dora the Explorer] feeling?” “Batman [Dora] is working hard”).
As to be expected, 6-year-olds found it easier to persevere, which makes sense because we know that children get better at concentrating as they grow older. An interesting finding was that the children who pretended to be “superheroes” persevered longer than those in the other two groups, and that those who persevered the shortest amount of time were the kids who had adopted a first-person perspective.
The positive effects of the Batman effect on your kid
Research suggests that several factors can help explain why the Batman effect helps improve children’s performance:
First, viewing themselves as someone powerful and in control helps kids feel like they themselves are confidently in charge. These feelings then help them persevere even in the face of obstacles.
Second, viewing themselves as superheroes helps kids distance themselves from situations that they view as difficult, which helps them to better navigate anxiety-provoking situations. Self-distancing also makes it easier to think of other ways of doing things and can therefore improve executive function skills.
Third, the more your child identifies with a specific superhero, the greater the chances that they consciously or subconsciously develop the positive characteristics associated with that superhero.
Now that you know that it’s okay to let your child think of themselves as a superhero, here are a few things that you can do to make the best of the Batman effect.
Three things that you can do to take advantage of the Batman effect
1. Help your child practice a “superhero script.”
The researchers in the study previously mentioned suggest that one of the reasons why the Batman effect works is because it prompts kids to engage in self-talk. They believe that self-talk from a psychologically distanced perspective may have promoted greater reflection among the kids.
Engaging in role playing with your child and asking them, “What would Batman [or whoever their superhero is] do/say/think?” is therefore an easy and effective way to promote your child’s ability to reflect and have them learn to see situations from different angles. You can also watch movies together and help them relate the depicted scenes to their everyday experiences and situations (in class, at home and so on).
2. Help them unleash their superpower.
I have always loved the idea that every child has a superpower. The best thing about this idea is that anything and everything can be a superpower — being good at music, sports or reading; being a good friend; being empathetic or patient; and so on.
When you show your child that they possess and demonstrate their own personal strengths, you help them develop a positive sense of self, and this affects how they react to the world around them.
3. Reinforce positive behavior.
We now know that reinforcing positive behavior makes it more likely that the behavior will be repeated and habituated. But positive reinforcement is not about bribing your child to encourage them to behave in a specific way. It is about showing them that their positive behavior does not go unnoticed. Remember to be specific to help your child understand the exact behavior that you would like to reinforce: “You practiced a little every day and now your results have paid off!”
Last thoughts on the Batman effect
While the Batman effect can help kids become more focused and persistent when faced with difficult tasks, researchers suggest that not all kids benefit from this strategy. A child who has no executive function issues with respect to focus and concentration, ability to remember information, ability to think of a situation from different angles, etc., does not need to turn to the Batman effect as a cognitive strategy.
In other words, while the strategy can help kids struggling with specific issues, adopting it with a child who has good executive function skills can prove counterproductive. For kids who don’t have issues with executive function skills, helping them to learn to distance themselves from complex situations in order to more clearly reflect on these situations from different perspectives, and to come up with different ways to address them can be more appropriate than having them imagine being someone else. As with all things, it is important to think about your child’s actual needs and abilities before adopting the Batman effect.