Crissi and Ed Boland decided they weren’t happy with the toys and comics available for their two young sons. They were tired of the cynical merchandising of decades-old superheroes, the dark and violent comic books, and the “narcissism and a win-at-all-cost approach” that they feel pervade our culture. They want their sons to have meaningful toys that promote the classic values Ed had learned as a boy: honesty, humility, loyalty, compassion, and diligence.
So Crissi and Ed created HeroBoys, a line of action figures and accompanying comic books, “meant to celebrate the adventure, imagination, and limitless potential inherent in boys, while reinforcing positive values.” The HeroBoys are a seemingly ordinary group – a hothead struggling with his emotions, a physically disabled thinker, an insecure boy who has to awaken his ability to lead, and a painfully shy boy trying to access his inner strength – who come together to do good and whose adventures are teachable moments. “We want our boys to know it’s OK to be themselves,” the Bolands declare. “Just like our HeroBoys – they don’t have to be perfect.”
It’s telling that the Bolands even felt that such a project to inculcate old-fashioned values in their boys is necessary. It speaks to the concerns of many parents who may see limited choices for their children’s moral guidance in a pop culture that sends too many questionable and mixed messages to kids. Contemporary comic books, for example, too often depict superheroes not so much as role models for conveying traditional moral values, but as morally muddled vehicles for pushing a politically correct racial and gender agenda.
But in fact there is a wide range of choices for finding positive values and moral instruction in children’s literature (classic and modern, from Aesop to Harry Potter), in tales of real-life heroes and role models (both ancient and contemporary), and in Bible stories, among other options. Children’s television, for example, abounds with shows that address virtues like compassion and honesty (the same goes for kids’ movies), and that’s not just a recent development. Fred Rogers’ Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood guided whole generations of children through the kinds of fears and insecurities that the HeroBoys wrestle with (and Rogers’ legacy lives on in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a favorite of my kids).
Granted, Ed and Crissi Boland are focusing on superheroes because they are such compelling ideals for boys. Superheroes do indeed serve an important function for developing a moral imagination in boys. They are valuable personae for preparing boys, through play and fantasy, to choose good over evil and to one day stand courageously against evil in the real world. The Bolands clearly understand this – but do boys really need a new kind of superhero? The Bolands claim that so far (their business is still getting off the ground), kids love the flawed and relatable HeroBoys, but my suspicion is that boys under the age of ten, like the Bolands’, prefer heavily-muscled, magically-powered supermen precisely because they are not so grounded in reality.
This is not to dismiss Ed and Crissi’s admirable desire to give their kids the right kinds of role models, and more power to them for their creative efforts. But whatever choices parents make to supplement their own moral guidance, the critical point to remember is that a boy’s first hero and role model is, or should be, his dad. That’s where a son witnesses courage and values in action: from the everyday, real world examples set by his father. Ed Boland even acknowledges that he got his own values from his dad.
True, Ed has a very valid point when he says that as a working dad he’s lucky to get two hours a day with his boys; he and countless fathers like him can’t be there all the time to counteract the subversive messages of a decadent culture and to steer their sons straight. But dads are the foundation. The values the Bolands are so keen to pass down to their boys – honesty, courage, humility, loyalty, compassion, diligence, and more – are most influential when they are rooted at home. The HeroBoys tagline – “There is a hero inside every boy” – is a very empowering insight, but that spark first takes hold when the boy sees that there is a hero inside his own father.