Pretending to be a superhero can give your child ‘super powers’

When kids impersonate cool characters, they may take on the admirable qualities during ordinary tasks.

Pretending to be a superhero can give your child ‘super powers’
@kbattlephoto via Twenty20

Do you have to wrestle your kiddo out of a superhero costume on laundry day? According to a recent study, your little cosplayer is likely on the track to developing a real-life super power: the ability to persevere in the most boring of situations.

The "Batman Effect" was described in a 2016 report published in the journal Child Development, with the researchers discovering that young kids who pretend to impersonate a cool character stick to monotonous tasks for longer periods of time.

For the study, researchers asked 180 kids between the ages of 4 and 6 to complete a mundane but "important" task for 10 minutes. Before getting to work, the group was split into three with one bunch of kids instructed to do the job as themselves, one bunch to think of themselves in the third-person when doing the task and the final bunch told to think of themselves as a character like Batman or Dora the Explorer.

An outsider's perspective helps kids focus 

Across the board, the ones who thought of themselves as a cool character proved to have more focus.

"This research shows that taking an outsider's perspective on one's own behavior can improve perseverance in the face of entertaining distraction," say the study's authors in their analysis.

Although, predictably, the 4-year-old kids in the group had shorter attention spans than the older participants, even the little ones performed better when they pretended to be a character.

The researchers suggest this could be related to theories on self-distancing, which say disengaging from a situation can actually reduce susceptibility to temptations.

Just don't set your expectations too high: The 4-year-olds who were simply themselves stayed on task 20% of the time while the 4-year-olds in character were focused for 35% of the 10 minutes.

"What would Batman do?" 

Nonetheless, that's pretty cool news to parents who struggle to keep little ones focused—or, at least, by your side while navigating a busy grocery store. Next time, just ask them what Batman would do! (To truly replicate the research, you'll have to repeat this question every minute.)

Writing for Psychology Today, Amy Morin, a licensed clinical social worker, offered some tips for how parents can do this without sounding like a researcher.

"Identify one of your child's favorite characters—make sure it's someone who is hard working, like Rapunzel. Then say, 'Pretend to be Rapunzel and do your work the same way Rapunzel would do it,'" Morin wrote.

"Check in on her periodically by asking, 'How's it going in there, Rapunzel?' You'll likely find she's able to perform better than usual," the social worker explained.

There is one big caveat: Because the children seemed to assume the traits of the characters they were impersonating, don't encourage your child to pretend to be, say, The Hulk if you don't want her to go around smashing things.

[Update, September 3, 2018: This post was originally published December 14, 2017. It has been updated to include more information and a link to Amy Morin's article for Psychology Today.]

You might also like: