Advice for Parents of Kids Who Love Fantasy & Super Heroes
A lot of parents who pick up on my personal story will often ask me about their own highly imaginative kids. “My girl can name every single Pokémon,” or “My son knows the exact powers of every single Marvel super hero.” They sometimes have concerns, because the child seems preoccupied by the characters and storylines of their favorite fantasy worlds. Sometimes I’m asked for ways to get them interested in “other things,” or ween them from their obsession somehow. Other times, I’m asked, how can I cultivate and expand my child’s imagination? That’s the question I like better.
In my experience as an educator and entertainment industry pro, a few things are going on for preteens with these kinds of interests. Often, there is an innate need to categorize and cross-reference things, particularly elements that might not be familiar to adults and authority figures such as older siblings (hence fantasy and super heroes). This way your child becomes a specialist. No one else in the family or in the class has this skill! There is also the fascination with power and myth, which are both aspirational. In a world where your child is almost always ordered around in some way, there is a yearning to embrace power and speculate on its applications. “If I were super strong, I wouldn’t have to worry about getting picked on for being small.”
If you sense an unusual propensity for imagination—often highly focused on a single story world, such as Harry Potter or Toy Story or a Japanese anime series, my recommendation is to encourage its cultivation and expansion through further exploration. What more is there of these stories? How is this story world related to others? The philosophies and strategies of Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Doctor of Doctor Who—how are they similar? How do they differ?
Most kids lock into something collectible, master it by learning everything about it, then eventually tire of it and move on. This sense of expertise then fades with the arrival of adolescence, with teens tending to focus on the here and now. But in some cases, where there is true joy to be found, I would recommend introducing your child to the concept of a taxonomy.
In this case, a taxonomy is the ability to trace a character or concept to its roots. What was the creator thinking when he or she invented the character? How is the character similar to other characters in our culture? How was the character inspired by earlier characters? What are the origins of this kind of character in literature or mythology? By answering these questions together, you can inspire your child to go back to those same roots to invent his or her own character, or event create an original story world.
Lets take Superman, for example. Creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were dreamers and artists in the 1930s, when such aspirations were frowned upon. They invented a character that took elements from John Carter of Mars, Robin Hood, and Popeye the Sailor to create the Man of Steel. Today, comic book counterparts to Superman might include Marvel’s Thor or Hulk. But the character really has roots in the narrative of the God/human hybrid, who arrives on Earth to help humanity, which can be found in the stories of Jesus or Hercules. The same can be done for Pixar movies (which are interconnected in so many subtle and fun ways), The Wizard of Oz (which has a huge cosmology), the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and so many others.
For super bright young people, I might recommend a couple of books that discuss such taxonomies: The Hero & the Outlaw by Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson, and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. There are also any number of texts that delve into the origins of your child’s favorite story world. For me, Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings by Lin Carter (which you’ll have to hunt for) was an absolute revelation, and set me on course for the career I love.
Also, encourage your child to better understand the fantasy worlds, contextually, in which their favorite characters live. There are many atlases of these fictional universes that you can find on Amazon, such as The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. Being able to understand that entire worlds can be designed, which play on the themes and variations of characters and their quests, can be truly mind-expanding. This kind of exploration can lead your child to figures like Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces), Carl Jung (Man and His Symbols), and Roland Barthes (Mythologies).
In the age of pervasive media, understanding character and story is the key to improved self-expression, better leadership, and superior achievement. Instead of weening your child off of fantasy, reveal to them the amazing, interconnected continuum of story.