If, as RuPaul eloquently puts it, we’re born naked and everything else is drag, kids are pretty much always winning the drag race. Princesses, cops, and Spider-Men mix it up in backyards, showing off both duds and superpowers. But parents are often encouraged to draw a line and discourage their kids from going full-costume all the time. A bit of escapism, the thinking seems to go, helps the education system go down; too many risks delaying social development. There may be a sliver of truth in that, but Laura Jana, pediatrician, and crusader for capes, argues that juvenile cosplay has demonstrable benefits.
“These are the roots of empathy,” Jana says. “It’s literally walking in another person’s shoes.”
Jana notes that pretending is an incredibly powerful tool for a kid. And when children are given fresh wardrobe, scrubs, for example, they are also handed an opportunity to alter their outlook. Now, presented with a problem, they can offer specific new solutions. Do they know how to intubate a patient or manage crippling debt? No, but they do start to consider how a doctor thinks. The job ceases to be an abstraction.
“At its core, it’s about the ability to imagine something that’s not in front of you,” says Jana. “It’s imagining that they have the ability to get beyond where they’re at.”
And the power of that experience is born out by research. A 2016 University of Pennsylvania study published in the journal Developmental Science found that kids as young as 5 years old could leverage a leotard if they were identifying as superheroes. The researchers found that the more distanced the children were from themselves, the better they performed on an executive function task meant to determine self-control. While researchers didn’t require the children to dress up, Jana notes that costumes can help.
“For some children, it facilitates a level of creative play and imagination,” she says. “It really makes a positive impact right down to children’s world-view and their belief systems. It helps them see the world as bigger than the four walls they’re in.”
Are there dangers? Yes, because not all superheroes are heroes all the time. Hulk smashes his way adorably through children’s cartoons, but he is a raging id. Bruce Banner might be a smart guy, but Hulk is a violent jerk. And no one dresses up as Banner.
“There’s no value to saying, ‘Okay the world is really rough and you’re going to have to fight tooth and nail and slash people up for good in the world,’” Jana says. “Skip the fighting part, especially for young children. You don’t have to fight in a literal sense for good.”
Instead, Jana suggests that costumed kids with an urge to do good can go out in the world and use their superpowers to help neighbors or clean up trash or rake the leaves or walk the dog. Alternatively, she suggests that parents play up the physical aspects of heroes, putting an emphasis on running and leaping over “buildings.” Exercise is an unmitigated good. Exercise in the pursuit of truth, justice, or the American way? Double good.
And there’s another perk to the, “Sure, yeah, you’re Stupendous Man” approach: Kids learn to dress themselves. In the short term, the results may be somewhere between street style and insanity, but over the longer term, most people tend to deviate towards a middle-class mean. Jana suggests shrugging off the now in favor of not getting panicked, outfit-related calls from college.
“It’s easy to get buried in the short term,” Jana says. “But remember that your long-term goal is that you don’t want to be dressing your 20-year-old.”
Just don’t let toddlers dress like Deadpool.