Tag Archives: community building

Taking off Our Superhero Capes

29 Aug

superman_capeWhen I was 10, my mom used to pack me a lunch that had a little tuna-sandwich making kit in it.  A little sleeve of crackers, plus a mini-tin of tuna and a packet of mayonnaise you mixed in.  I barely liked anything my mom packed for lunch, but I liked that.  The problem was, the tuna was a bit fragrant.  As the smell wafted over the lunch tables, someone would inevitably say, “ewww…does someone have tuna?  I hate tuna.”  As my cheeks reddened, I tried to covertly hide the fact that I was the tuna-eater.  It was embarrassing to be eating something that others found distasteful.

I spent a lot of time thinking about that tuna, and I eventually came to the conclusion that while it was acceptable to dislike something that others liked–to be the person saying, “gross, I won’t eat that”–it was not acceptable to like what others disliked.  Far safer to automatically reject something that might not be accepted, than to embrace something that others would find objectionable.

Glennan Doyle Melton, a mommy blogger and best-selling writer, named this phenomenon “superhero capes”–people’s tendency to wrap themselves in a cape of sarcasm, or perfectionism, or positivity–to protect themselves against painful personal exposure.  For me, negativity was a good cape.  Saying I didn’t like something was easier than saying I did.  If you reject something before it rejects you, you’re all good, right?

Fast-forward to adult-me, and now I see this particular cape a lot in schools.  It becomes stronger and thicker as children grow older.  It’s particularly thick in middle school, where making fun of something or someone before they can make fun of you is a classic peer-control strategy.  But it shows up in the workplace too, and personal lives, and it creeps into each interaction we have with others.

The need for superhero capes is, I think, deep down about the need for connection.  It’s about being afraid you’ll be rejected from a group, and pre-emptively removing yourself so you don’t have the pain of being cast out by others.  It’s similar to the strategy of self-handicapping in learning, where you don’t put in effort from the beginning, so that when you fail you can protect yourself from the disappointment by saying, “that failure doesn’t really say anything about me…I didn’t even try.”  If you reject an activity, or idea, or person first, you protect yourself from knowing if they would have rejected you.

A sense of belonging lessens the need for superhero capes.  It’s why community building is so important for classes, and staffs, and why we start with icebreakers and connectors in most meetings.  A warm, welcoming environment allows us to try new things and open ourselves up for failure.

community_circle_displayI’m getting ready to start a new year of teaching as a reading specialist, and I’m about to have 5 new mini-communities in my daily reading groups.  The kids already know each other from class, but we’ll start with some warm-fuzzies anyway so that they know they’re welcome and they can open themselves up to try new things without a fear of rejection.   We’ll make a group picture book, and write about our families, and read stories together.  Maybe we’ll have some special lunches once a month, so that we can bond over non-academic fun too.

And if they bring tuna fish, I’ll be sure to say, loud and clear, “Did someone bring tuna fish?  Awesome, I love tuna fish too!”


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