Brian A. Kinnaird Ph.D.

The Hero in You

I Was a 3rd Grade Supper Hero

From kids to adults, can superheroes teach us about morality?

Posted Dec 20, 2017

Years ago, my son’s third-grade elementary teacher had her class do a study of what makes a superhero. In particular, they were asked to examine the modern-day, pop culture superhero and then make themselves into school superheroes. After brainstorming ideas, they were asked to write about their powers, how they would use them in school, and to design a costume. Questionesta was able to answer any question the teacher asked; Smart Pencil Girl could produce a pencil from her arm at any time. If the lead were to break, get dull or if another student needed one, they did not have to bother the teacher or distract the class with the pencil sharpener. Super Weather Dude could make rooms warmer or cooler, always keeping things comfortable during the change of seasons. Additional powers of these classroom heroes were finishing homework, saving people from heavy stuff, cooking the entire school breakfast, holding a friend’s book, recycling, keeping people away from fights, saving kids from bullies, and “destroying disrespectfulness.”

Twenty-four students completed this project and all were given a blank page with a pre-printed image similar to a gingerbread man. Of those students, 71 percent of them designed characters with costumes that resembled comic book superheroes, replete with capes, gloves, boots, masks, colorful outfits, and signs or symbols on the center of their chest. An excerpt from my son’s superhero (pictured in the main post image) boasted:

“Hello I am Supper Wes. My powers are to recicle, super-reading, responcibility, and supper brains. I will use my powers to help people learn, help people when they are hurt, get bullies to be nicer to kids and help the school to be a peacefull and helpful place. My costume is blue and it has two green lightning bolts forming an 'x.' I also have a rope straped to my back with a hook on it.”

If you can smile beyond the misspelled words, this stream of consciousness captured on paper by my son (along with his other classmates) was born of childish idealism—not in the sense of naivety, but in purity. Much like the 1939 comic book character of Billy Batson, which depicts an idealistic young boy who was bullied by others, yet got up each time he fell. He would also help others pushed around too.  Billy sought justice but did not yet know grace. He wished to be older so that he could “do something” about it. An ancient (and watching) wizard named Shazam summons this young boy. By uttering the old wizard’s name, a lightning bolt strikes the boy’s chest and he transforms into an adult superhero, bestowed with the abilities of six mythological heroes: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury.

It was only by the purest of heart and self-giving that Billy Batson became an adult albeit a different hero. He did not abuse these abilities but learned a grace that comes with empathy and compassion. As his adult alter ego Captain Marvel, he continued to learn lessons that effectively translated “back” to his youthful identity and found himself being able to handle more through a new, heroic spirit that dwelled within him.

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget explained that children in their elementary school years typically move from egocentric to concrete and logical thinking patterns. After that, it simply requires the support of practical aids. Reflecting on their own behaviors, they develop an awareness of right, true, and necessary, which govern their thought processes. In the case of this class, superheroes provided a moral compass. (See my Psychology Today article on "When Kids Are the Heroes" for additional research and stories.)

A Moral Compass

Many social institutions and rituals support the development of morality. Through our school systems, character development projects such as the one shared above are one way we cultivate heroic imaginations and young people see the benefit of their moral “gifts” when they take action by using them. As our society and cultures help to create our moral development, the maintenance of continuity lies in the hands of external influences. Like the children in my son’s third-grade classroom, if we can identify and indulge in them, being a superhero emerges as a spiritual guide and can energize us against a backdrop of negative influences. Contemplating our place in that world we imagine, we can move forward with pro-social, resolute action—where the act and the actor become one!

As symbolic and contemporary forms of art and expression, comics, television and films have brought the superhero story to a new dimension where children and adults can gather to be both entertained and inspired. Their stories create psychosocial impulses that many are willing to explore. These impulses symbolize our human struggles and that colossal battle between good and evil. Tapping into our psyche, they often formulate a conscious quest towards strengthening our moral obligation to others while developing a communal goal of sacrifice.  

In the 1938 comic book story of Superman, a Kryptonian scientist saved his son from the destruction of his planet—destruction that could have been averted if not for the selfishness, greed, and vanity of his fellow citizens. By rocketing him to Earth he not only saved the boy’s physical life, but also provided a token of utility—a moral criterion—so that others could be led to greatness. In the 1978 motion picture Superman: The Movie, Jor-El (portrayed by Marlon Brando) communicates to his son about the people of his new home world by exclaiming, “They can be a great people Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you.”

America’s Disease

Various studies will argue that we are experiencing a moral decline. Crime continues to rise and creates a climate of fear while promiscuity and violence permeate other parts of our social fabric. We have transcended, in the course of one century, an ethos of work, family, and religion that has given way to individualism and secular humanism—to do what you want, when you want, and how you want.

With this gap of relative deprivation, we are discontent not only with the space between what we have and want, but what we have come to expect. That individualism is contagious to others in our social systems. Motivational speaker Matthew Kelly explained, “Our culture places a high premium on self-expression, but is relatively disinterested in producing ‘selves’ that are worth expressing.”

Former Department of Education Secretary William Bennett offered research explaining that 1940’s school teachers spoke of problems with kids talking out of turn, being loud, running in the hallways, cutting in lines, and violating dress codes.  By 1990, we had similar issues but coupled with drugs, guns, alcohol, pregnancy, suicide, rape, and assault. He went on to explain that while in the 1930s, people were disgusted with Clark Gable’s use of the word “damn,” today’s abusive language and behavior permeates our entertainment industry in the name of reality—talk shows, television and movie docu-dramas, sports, and video games—all replete with graphic depictions of violence and human suffering.

In the comics and superhero mythology, villains are making a similar transcendence in the scope of on-page and on-screen violence. According to research I conducted in 2008, our comic book stands, television screens, and movie theatres have always been a compelling and illustrious rogue’s gallery for villains like the Joker, Lex Luthor, Green Goblin or Dr. Doom. Using strongly developed characters to anchor drama with real life or death implications, we have watched as our favorite superhero characters wrestle with themes such as power and corruption. We have come to find that moral complexity often transforms good people into monstrous incarnations.

Because esteem contributes to personal and social responsibility, the generosity that is spawned by self-giving appears to have become a distant prospect. The disease of today could very well be our young people who no longer feel heroic in the culture we have set up for them. As a result, they may explore destructive heroics in response to negative situations, associations and role models. As we move from victims to victors, we will realize that the world is not perfect. It’s a matter of tackling our ugliness instead of complaining that it exists and that somebody else should do something about it. Morality and its sacrifices are both fundamental attributes of the perfect human spirit and superhero stories can spur that call to action—so much so that the hero does not mind that the world is imperfect—it provides a playground for improvement.

Highest Generosities

At a 2011 comic book convention in Austin, TX, I interviewed Jarrett Crippen, an Austin, TX police officer who entered the Sci-Fi Channel’s Season 2 reality-based series, Who Wants to Be a Superhero? created by legendary superhero creator Stan Lee. Calling himself “The Defuser,” Crippen’s alter ego was an expert paramilitary superhero who used non-lethal weapons to take down the bad people. He also had the incredible power to function at 110 percent! In a two-hour season finale on this Sci-Fi Channel series, Stan “The Man” Lee chose The Defuser as the next great superhero!

Crippen told me, “If you really want to be a hero, simply wake up every day and ask yourself ‘Who can I help today?’ Pretty soon you will become a hero to somebody.” He went on to share a story about a time when he was 14 years old and found a wallet at the shopping mall. He opened it up and saw the driver’s license picture. Scanning the area, he noticed a man frantically searching the floor who looked a lot like the man in the photo. Excited, Crippen ran over to ask the man if this was his wallet. Angry and irritated, he snatched the wallet in Crippen’s hand and rushed off. Not even a thank you. Crippen explained to me that he did not care about the man’s behavior because he knew he had done the right thing. “Comics and superheroes taught me that lesson,” he said.

People who do good deeds decline compensation anyway because it devalues the nature of the act, which lies intimately in our human nature and asks, “What is my incentive for doing this”? All of us experience delight when we do a noble deed because we find unity with the other and it becomes a moral “gift.” Crippen’s act as a young boy went beyond what he was obligated to do, although the obligation gives the act moral worth. Good people like that identify themselves in others and such convictions are often empathetic and compassionate. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer explained that compassion is a response to another’s misfortune. When we relieve their misfortune, we have promoted their well-being.

As with my son’s third-grade class, the superhero story provided moral instruction. This instruction, however, does not make us moral—it only signals to us what we are up against. Knowledge cannot always protect us from doing wrong, but the instruction does protect us from being deceived that what we do is not wrong. In the 2008 Christopher Nolan film The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne exclaims, “People are dying, Alfred, what would you have me do”? His faithful butler and family friend replies, “Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They'll hate you for it, but that's the point of Batman—he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make. The right choice.”

Clark Kent’s parents, Peter Parker’s aunt, and even the mutant students of Professor Charles Xavier—all similar mentors of moral instruction who affirmed to their superhero that using their gifts was of value to others.  

Resolute Action

Since its inception, the superhero story has been one of men and women with excellent character traits making sacrifices for the cause of freedom and liberty. With each generation of writers, artists, and fans, colorful characters have stepped forward in advancing ideals and has allowed the expansion of our worth as a testament to our collective behaviors that promote humankind’s quest for good over evil.

Superhero stories can be a starting point or mythological benchmark for understanding our purpose and journey as human beings. Their stories provide symbolic solutions to find order and meaning in a world that will always need heroes. They also serve as symbolic expressions of how to act and behave in order to thrive in our difficult times. Their themes touch us all as we try to find our way and do the right things at every juncture of our life. We own over 80 years of superhero lore through comic books, radio programs, television, movies, and even toys. Each domain has provided us a story to comfort, celebrate, and improve our nature and thus the nature of our society.

While theatrical and seductive in a good way, superhero mythology keeps our world secure and tolerable. As we contemplate the superhero story in our social and moral fabric, I challenge you to think of a colorful character from your past that might have been helpful for you in interpreting and responding to the world around you. Have a dialogue with this hero. For example, Thor saw battle as an excellent way to live life. When you imagine his struggles in his world, you see your world in a different way. In doing so, you realize that there are possibilities not offered by others for which this hero can be your guide. 

Then, take out a blank sheet of paper with an outline of a gingerbread man and create your own “supper hero!" 

Copyright © by Brian A. Kinnaird

Brian A. Kinnaird, Ph.D. is a former law enforcement officer and current criminal justice professor. He is active as an author, trainer, speaker, and consultant and can be contacted at brian.kinnaird@gmail.com

References

Bennett, W. J. (1993). “Getting used to decadence—the spirit of democracy in modern America”, The Heritage Lectures, no. 477 as quoted in American Values: Opposing viewpoints: San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995, p. 107.

Campbell, J. & Bill Moyers (1988). The power of myth. Anchor: New York.

Campbell, J. (1968). The hero with a thousand faces, 2ed. Princeton University Press: Princeton, N.J.

Delattre, E. J. (2002). Character and cops: Ethics in policing (4th ed.). Washington, DC: AEIPress.

Gert, B. (1967). "Hobbes and Psychological Egoism", Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 28, No. 4, pp. 503–520.

Hoffman, E. (1994). The drive for self: Alfred adler and founding of individual psychology. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.  

Hollingdale, R. J. (1970). Arthur Schopenhauer: Essays and aphorisms (trans.). PenguinBooks: London, England.

Kelly, M. (2002). Rediscovering catholicism. Beacon Publishing.

Kinnaird, B. (2009). Parallel universe: A theatre for heroism—Cops and superheroes. Watchman Books. Salina, KS.

Lee, S. (2007). Who wants to be a superhero? [Television series]. Universal Studios: Sci-Fi Channel.

Lee, S. (1962). Amazing Fantasy #15. Marvel Comics.

Nolan, C (2008). The dark knight [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Home Video.

Ogilvy, J. (1995). Living without a goal. Doubleday Press. New York.

Palmer, G. (1903). The nature of goodness (trans. 2003). Kessinger Publishing.

Plumb, J. H. (1974). Disappearing heroes (14), 4. Horizon.

Puzo, Mario, & Donner, R. (1978). Superman: The movie [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Home Video.

Schuller, R. (1997). The Be (happy) attitudes. Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Waller, Bruce N. (2005). Consider Ethics: Theory, Readings, and Contemporary Issues. New York: Pearson Longman.