“This will help you feel better!”
“You can have one chocolate chip if you drink it all gone.”
My four-year-old needed to take a dose of antibiotics yesterday — a heaping spoonful of chalky goo — and he was not listening to any of my pleas. He lay flat on the ground, shaking his head, with his little hands clamped over his mouth.
And then I noticed that he was wearing a superhero cape. That’s part of his uniform these days. Bath towels become tools for flying. Blankets get thrown over his shoulder as he races around the house yelling, “Here I come to save the day!”
So I gave it one more try.
“Hey, Superman. There are some villains called Germs inside your ear. But this special super-juice will help you beat them, and Superman will get his strength back!”
He gulped it down without complaint, and this morning he asked me, “Can I have my super-juice so the Germs don’t win?”
Thank you, Superman. And Batman, too, because I got the idea from a fascinating research study called, “The ‘Batman Effect’: Improving Perseverance in Young Children.” Researchers found that four- to six-year-olds were better at focusing and persevering at important (but repetitive or unappealing) tasks when they pretended to be superheroes.
Perseverance is a really important character trait. It’s one of those life tools that helps kids become strong in other ways. Perseverance helps kids stick with a task long enough to solve problems and learn new skills. In the face of life’s distractions, can a young child focus on listening to a book, building a tower, cleaning up a mess, or following a morning or bedtime routine?
In this study, when kids pretended to be someone else — an appealing fictional character — they were able to stick with the task at hand more easily. Researchers gave kids a prop (such as a cape) and used their pretend name instead of their real name. For example, instead of asking, “Are you working hard?” they asked, “Is Batman working hard?”
Researchers don’t yet know precisely why this worked. Did “make-believe” make the task at hand more fun? Did the kids identify with the strengths of the fictional character and try to be more like him or her? Did thinking about themselves in the third person give kids some distance from the task? Regardless of the why, the study’s outcome was clear: “Pretending to be another character had large effects on children’s perseverance.”
So what lessons can we draw from this as parents?
First, as Fred Rogers so famously said, “Play is really the work of childhood.” Creative play has numerous benefits. In addition to supporting perseverance, pretend play helps kids develop their problem-solving skills, cognitive skills, and social-emotional skills. (It’s one of the reasons Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood has a “Let’s Pretend” segment in every show.)
Second, role-playing is a great strategy for bringing a little extra joy and focus to everyday tasks. My son responds much better to “let’s tip-toe like mice” than he does to exasperated reminders to “please quiet down!” Clean-up time is more fun when we are fairies and gnomes who have to get the room organized for the Fairy Queen’s visit. And, of course, Superman’s super-juice tastes much, much better than regular medicine.