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Health & Parenting

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Superheroes: Bad Role Models for Boys?

Researchers Say Superheroes Are Too Violent, but Close Ties to Mothers, Friends Can Help Boys Shun Negative Stereotypes

Resisting Superheroes and Slackers: What Works?

In another study, also presented Sunday, developmental psychologist Carlos Santos, PhD, an assistant research professor at Arizona State University, Tempe, reported that boys who resist these images seem better adjusted.

In his research, he followed 426 middle school boys from six public schools in New York. The boys came from diverse backgrounds, he tells WebMD, allowing him to look at whether ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or immigrant status factored into whether boys adopted the macho superhero image.

He asked the boys, surveyed annually in the spring of sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, to describe the quality of their relationships with their mother, father, closest sibling, and their friends.

He evaluated whether the boys could resist following the ''macho" stereotype to be tough, detached from friends, and emotionally unavailable.

"Boys were acting resistant to stereotypes early in the study," he says. "Over time, there was a decline."

Santos found little difference between the groups, which included African-Americans, whites, Latinos, Asians, and others.

Boys who resisted stereotypes and were less aggressive and more emotionally available remained close to mothers, siblings, and peers, he found.

Closeness to dads didn't help them resist, however. "I didn't find the same pattern with dads," he tells WebMD. Boys who said they had high levels of paternal support tended to be less emotionally available to friends.

Why? "It could be that dads see being close to their son as an opportunity to reinforce traditional gender roles," Santos speculates. "Or it could be that boys perceive their dad's closeness as a call to fulfill traditional gender roles."

Santos isn't discouraging fathers from staying involved with their sons, of course. A father might share with a son, for instance, how being expressive does not make them less of a man, he says.

Keeping Superheroes and Slackers at Bay

What can parents do to be sure their sons see other images besides the two extremes?

Realize not every movie labeled PG-13 is OK for children, Lamb suggests.

Pointing out the stereotypes can help, she says. "You can teach kids what stereotypes are and how to resist them and remind them what real people and real kids like to do."

Point out good role models within the family and community, she says. Then kids can differentiate media images from real images.

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