On The 8th Day of Christmas The Lunchbox Shared With Me

... Superman!

Go figure right? Well this is a repost of an article for another blog, and I wanted to share it again specifically on the Lunchbox. It's about how Superman made me a better dad, and one of my all-time favorites. Right now as I am spending a rare length of time with my boys in conjuction with my two step-daughters it seems fitting.

How Superman Made Me A Better Father.

To many, it might seem odd for a guy in his mid-thirties to be such a huge fan of Superman. If I worked in the comic book industry, or were if I was a serious collector it would make more sense - but I am neither. In fact, I wasn’t even interested in The Man of Steel until a few years ago when I first moved to Chicago. I bought Season 1 of the CW television show Smallville as something to watch until my cable was hooked up. If you’ve never heard or seen it before, Smallville is an exploration into the life of Clark Kent as a late teen and early adult as he learns to use his developing powers in his many adventures prior to donning the now iconic cape and tights as Superman.

Granted, the show is more of a teen drama with a fair share of campiness, but I was struck with the overwhelming number of themes related to fatherhood throughout the entire arc of the story. Central to the plot is Clark’s relationship with his adoptive father Jonathan Kent who raises him, but also his biological (and spiritual) father Jor-El who guides Clark towards his ultimate destiny. These images are contrasted with the father-son relationship between Lex Luthor and his father Lionel, culminating in the transformation of Lex, from Clark’s best friend to Superman’s archenemy. Being that I came to Chicago specifically because I wanted to be an involved father and not just a child support check to my three boys after their mother moved away, the images of fatherhood depicted on Smallville hit home.

I was tearing through the remaining seasons on DVD in a race to catch up to the currently aired episodes when I was struck with the concept of what it would it take to parent a child that can lift a truck, or run the speed of light. Not only do you have to deal with all the normal things like getting him to stay in bed after tuck in, and sharing toys with other kids at play groups, but now you have to worry he won’t run through his bedroom wall when you try to catch him or shove you into the next county when you take back the toy he just grabbed away from a playmate. As he gets older these lessons would become exponentially more complex, and as a parent, if you back away because of fear, it’s more likely the end result would be a super brat and not a super man. Had that rocket ship from Krypton landed in the backyard of the Spears’, Hilton’s or Lohan’s rather than a dirt field near the Kent farm I shudder to think of the possible outcomes. The Man of Bling maybe?

From that perspective, I realized how integral good parenting was in the development of Clark Kent from small town boy to “The Big Blue Boy Scout” (as he is sometimes cynically called as a reference to his uncompromising moral code). I also reasoned that there must be lessons within the story I could find for myself as a father. My interest expanded beyond just Smallville as I starting studying all things pertaining to the Superman Myth, making special note of any items I could incorporate into my own parenting skill set. I did not have to dig too far to find some essential lessons that I have tried to incorporate.

1. Use your abilities to help others: Superman has all manner of mad skills - mega-strength, x-ray vision, super hearing, heat vision, freeze breath, super speed, invulnerability, oh yeah, and he can fly. I imagine it would be tempting for both the parents and for Clark to use those powers for their own personal gain, but Jonathan Kent ingrained in his son a sense of selflessness and purpose. In the first Superman movie (staring Christopher Reeves), there is a scene where a young Clark uses his super speed to out-race his high school classmates who are in a car. As Clark comes up the driveway, his father (played by Glenn Ford) who has just witnessed what has happened, gently admonishes Clark by reminding him “his powers were meant for more than just scoring touchdowns.” This is a point I often think about when I see some of the child celebrities with their parents as managers. I wonder whose benefit those parents are really looking out for and what that says to their own children about putting others first.

2. There are consequences for our actions: I remember reading an article that claimed one of the most important lessons a father can teach his children is there are always consequences for our actions. The point being, eventually we have to let our children go and either we’ve taught them to live within rigid boundaries or we have taught them to make good decisions based on their own judgment of the potential outcomes. This point echoes repeatedly in the Smallville TV series, starting with Clark’s desire to join the high school football team. His father (this time played by John Schneider) is adamantly opposed; arguing that Clark is unaware of the consequences should he inadvertently hurt other players when using his super skills. Clark backs down, but several seasons later, he joins the team again, this time after careful consideration. The ensuing discussion between Clark and his dad over the renewed desire to join the team leads to another parental issue - learning to trust your children’s decisions. This summer one of my sons, who is a huge animal lover, learned the absolute consequences in shooting a frog with a BB gun. He has been repeatedly told guns are not toys, and after targeting something other than a soda can, he found out why. I know he learned a life lesson that day which he will remember every time he sees a gun.

3. Invulnerability and infallibility are not the same: As the strongest being in the universe, Superman could punch your head clear to China if he thought you were challenging his decisions. He could easily take over the planet if he desired, but that is not his nature. This is the very concept Superman’s enemy, Lex Luthor, tries to capitalize on in his attempts to turn the populace’s trust against the Man of Steel. Lex cannot conceive of someone having ultimate power and not using it to gain unchallenged control over others. Superman however, recognizes his infallibility, endowing him with a healthy respect for the damage he could inflict if left unchecked. It is the same type of respect I have for the damage I can cause my children by lording over them with “the-boss-is-always-right” type of parenting. Instead, I try to include them in decisions and make sure they hear me say sorry when I make a mistake.

4. Even Superman has a weakness: Superman might be the baddest mo-fracky around, but he still has a weakness in the form of kryptonite, meteor rocks from his home world. This isn’t exactly something he advertises, otherwise he would become vulnerable to anybody able to get their hands on it and use it against him. However, he doesn’t shy away from it when it comes between him and his duty. In the movie Superman Returns, kryptonite renders him a useless sack o' taters that Lex Luthor’s henchmen kick the stuffing out of and chuck over a cliff, where Lois Lane (along with Superman’s potential son) find him floating and pull him to safety. Superman then flies up to the sun to charges his batteries (solar energy fuels his powers), and then goes on to defeat the forces of evil once again. What I’m reminded of is that I, as a man, have weaknesses too, but admitting to their affects vs. parading them around as an excuse are two different things. My weaknesses should not prevent me from my responsibilities as a father. Sometimes though, I need help from others, just like Lois coming to Superman’s aid and I try to pass along that it is not weakness to accept that help.

There have been quite a few times when my kids will ask me why I like Superman so much, and I always reply, “Because he makes me a better dad.” The idea of a cartoon superhero somehow interacting with their father is intriguing to them and they want to know how that is even possible. “Well,” I say, “You remember when Superman was fighting Lex Luthor …” Soon we are having a big discussion about what happens when you make the wrong choice, or why you should look to help others. If I were talk to them directly about such stuff, they would think I’d fallen off my rocker, but somehow, because it’s Superman it doesn’t seem so far fetched.

Thankfully, my kids may not be able to fly at supersonic speeds or use heat vision to weld the toaster shut, but they do possess the potential to have an impact on their world one day. I guess if these lessons are good enough for a superhero known for his stance on truth, justice and, “all that other stuff” then it can’t hurt to use them on my own super crew.

Epilogue: After noticing the images and lessons of fatherhood in Superman, it seemed to me like there were quite a few others in pop culture, most recently with Indiana Jones having a son in the latest movie. Star Wars is another example. What are some you can think of? How do you use pop culture in parenting?

All artwork by Alex Ross

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