Preoccupation with superheroes is common among 4-year-olds. What can a teacher and parent do about the aggressive play that often results?

The Teacher's Story

Conrad and Timmy, both 4 years old and the best of friends, were on the playground when Conrad - unprovoked - karate-kicked his pal. Fortunately, Timmy was padded by his sweatshirt and jacket and wasn't really hurt. However, this was the fourth such incident with Conrad this week! "It was just for fun," Conrad whimpered, watching tears roll down Timmy's face.

Aggressive play has always been common among my fours, and teaching them not to hit others when they're angry takes ongoing effort. But Conrad wasn't mad at Timmy - he was just pretending to be his favorite superhero. Increasingly, these characters are inspiring a disturbing level of dangerous play. I've tried banning superhero toys at school. We've talked repeatedly about how punches and kicks hurt others, even when we're just pretending. But it's not easy with a child like Conrad, who's so taken with violent characters. I've talked to Conrad's mother before, and now I feel I really have to get to the bottom of this.

The Parent's Story

I'm worried about Conrad's obsession with superheroes. I don't allow him to watch violent cartoons at home, and despite his pleading, I don't take him to movies about superheroes or buy him the toys. Unfortunately, it's hard to control what others do. My brother gave Conrad a superhero action figure for his last birthday. And the mother of one of Conrad's friends planned a birthday party that focused on the latest superhero. What could I do - deny Conrad the fun of being part of his friend's birthday event?

But I certainly have seen the bad effects. Conrad is always pretending to karate-chop his little sister. He and his friends create makeshift swords and act out power themes. Yesterday, when I tried to divert them, Conrad called me by the name of an evil character in one series. My friends with older children say this power-toy play is just a phase - that Conrad will outgrow it. Maybe, but I'm worried about its impact on my son today.

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment

 Enacting aggressive fantasies is quite typical of 4-year-olds. And this concerned mom's friends are generally correct - left to their own devices, children usually play out power fantasies harmlessly, and in time their appeal fades. But some children like Conrad get stuck on prepackaged aggressive themes. Despite teachers' and parents' conscientious efforts, the advertising blitz succeeds.

It would be beneficial for Conrad's teacher and parent to get together and talk because they have the same goals. Superhero characters and their use of force to solve problems are themes that need to be discussed.

What the Teacher Can Do

Conrad's teacher made a wise decision in banning superhero toys at school. Play with these toys often gets out of hand in a group. She needs to continue her efforts to help children understand how their superhero dramatic play affects others. During play, she should observe closely, step in when children turn aggressive, and praise them when they use words, not force, to solve problems.

At every opportunity, she can also offer children a gentler view of the world. By leading group-time discussions and reading stories with nonviolent themes, she can reinforce the importance of getting along and being kind to others.

What the Parent Can Do

Conrad's mother is off to a good start in dealing with the problem. She has set rules and enforces them consistently. To ensure that her rules aren't undermined, she should insist that family members not give Conrad superhero toys. She can discuss with other parents her concerns about superhero play and parties for her child. And she might offer Conrad other kinds of interesting figures and building materials that encourage creative play.

Yet Mom also needs to remember that it's natural for children's feelings of power and anger to be enacted through play. Part of the process of emotional development is learning to express a full range of feelings. She's right, though, in sensing that Conrad's emotions should be his own, not just those of a toy or TV character. And he must learn to express strong feelings in safe ways, by using words, for example. Finally, his mother might consider using her own words to lobby with other parents and teachers to improve the quality of children's toys and programming - an issue that's on the minds of a lot of adults today.