04/25/2014 01:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Son's No Superhero, But I'm Not Going to Tell Him That

My son can kill monsters. He can catch "bad guys." In the event of an avalanche, he'll be OK, because he can destroy sharks if he falls into water. He won't slip on ice.

Or at least that's what he believes.

Why? Because he's Superman. And he believes that, too.


Right now, he's fearless. He races down hills on his two-wheeler. He climbs to, and jumps from, the highest heights on the playground. He confidently introduces himself to anybody -- typically followed by an accurate, if unsolicited, spelling of his name. He didn't cry when he got his 4-year-old shots.

Increasingly, he asks whether there are actual superheroes "in this world." He wants to find "a real one" who will help him hone his skills so he may become a full-fledged Superman when he grows up.

(Let's set aside this pacifist mama's issues with the violence that seems to penetrate all superhero story lines -- that's a whole separate article.)

At first, I directed him to his father, a surgeon, who heroically helps improve his patients' health. Then I pointed to firefighters, teachers, mothers, grandparents -- virtually any adult we look up to.

He settled on policemen as the closest thing. But still, he lamented, they don't fly.

I'm at a loss.

I want him to appreciate reality. To understand consequences. I firmly believe in being honest with my kids. Part of me wants to make it very clear to my son that no one flies. That he's not stronger than tigers. That people don't have special powers. And that capes are just pieces of fabric attached to his pajamas.

And part of me doesn't want him to grow up too soon.

Where he's too fearless, I'm too fearful. I'm a mother, and I worry, above all, about my kids getting hurt. Or lost. Reflecting on a challenge of having multiple children, a social worker friend of mine put it perfectly when she said, "It's hard to have so many people you love out there in the world."

But I also worry about overprotecting them and believe, as Hanna Rosin so artfully expressed, that when kids "face what to them seem like 'really dangerous risks' and then conquer them alone... [it] builds self-confidence and courage."

So how do we meet in the middle? How do I balance my son's juvenile naiveté with my jaded cynicism? How do I instill a healthy, appropriate fear of the world's dangers to keep him from actually "chasing bad guys" or being too cavalier as he traverses a patch of ice?

How do I keep him safe and humble, while still letting him dream?

He's young yet. He has his whole life to face reality. So I mostly stay quiet. I let his mind do the work, filling in the gaps with wonder and wander. It's his imagination, after all. His time to believe. There's plenty of life left for him to confront the truth.

I'll do the worrying for now.

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