What do you think of when you hear the word “hero”? For many, the word “hero” has become synonymous with celebrities, inventors, sports figures, musicians, and other individuals with special gifts or powers, excellent performance, or other noteworthy accomplishment.
Social psychologist Phil Zimbardo, PhD, claims that as a society we’ve “dumbed down heroism”. Not every good, kind, generous, smart, talented, famous person is a “hero”. There is a difference between role models and heroes.
Helping children become heroes in their own life story
1) Redefine Hero
What is a hero? Heroes don’t have to have magical powers or be involved in monumental feats. Zimbardo defines a hero simply as “a person who acts on behalf of others or in defense of integrity or a moral cause” and involves these 4 parts:
- Voluntarily action
- In the service of others or moral cause
- Involves personal risk
- Without expectation of personal benefit
Last Christmas my 8-year-old son showed heroism in a simple, yet touching way, when he left this letter for Santa on Christmas Eve. While it’s a small gesture, it was the opportunity for me as a parent to celebrate those budding heroic qualities.
“Thanks for bringing presents, but iff you think I don’t need it than give it to people who doesn’t get presents”
2) Watch for Heroes Everywhere
Once you’ve redefined what a hero is, you can take note of every day heroes in your community, in your family, and literature and movies.
Disney’s animated movie “Mulan” is an entertaining movie, with lively characters, and it can also be a springboard for conversation with your children about the 4 parts of heroism. Here are a few questions you might want to ask your children.
What value or moral cause prompted Mulan to go to battle?
Why do you think Mulan volunteered to fight in her father’s place?’
What was Mulan personally risking by making the choice to join the army?
What are some values that are important to you?
Are there any situations where you can act like a hero?
Jason M. Robison posted this on Facebook, “We teach our four children that being a hero is rarely glamorous and very often unpopular. We keep our eyes wide open for examples in the community that we can point out to them.”
3) Encourage Social Awareness and Action
The greater more people who witness an emergency; the less likely anyone is to do something about the situation. This is called the bystander effect. Help your child to understand this tendency and encourage them to act. They have the power to change the group norm by taking action on behalf of someone.
Encourage your child and teen to speak out, and to even challenge authority, in defense of another or one of their core values, even if it’s not popular.
Our children and teens come up against opportunities every day to be heroes. It may be as simple as sitting next to a lonely classmate in the lunch, walking away from a group of friends when they start to gossip, or reporting an act of bullying that they witnessed on the playground.
On Facebook, Vickie Johnson De Blasio says “We teach our kids that a hero does their best to improve the lives of others, without looking for acknowledgement.”
4) Teach and Nurture Heroic Virtues
Talk about your family’s values and the importance of developing character. Cultivate integrity, courage, compassion and social awareness in your family life. Families are losing the oral tradition of storytelling, and technology is taking over conversation and reading times. Provide your child opportunities all have examples of heroic figures with qualities that children can emulate in your family history, in literature and in religious text.
I’ve often heard my neighbor and dear friend Rene tells her three young children, “You can do hard things.” That simple statement can help her children see themselves as standing for something greater than themselves. Another family member frequently asks his son daily, “Who’s life can you bless today?”
Sharing stories of heroic family members can help nurture heroic virtues in your child. In 1856, one of our distant family relatives, Ephriam K. Hanks, volunteered to rescue a group of the Mormon Pioneers who were starving and stranded in a bitter winter storm. When he heard about the plight of the Willie and Martin handcart companies he was ready to risk his own life to help bring them to the Salt Lake Valley.
5) Be a Hero
The best way to inspire and teach your child to cultivate the hero inside of them is to be a hero, to cultivate your own heroic nature. I often hear children and teens in my clinical practice complain about how their parents lecture too much. We can do better at living heroic qualities instead of simply talking about those qualities.
As an adolescent, I remember going with my dad on Sunday’s to visit widows in my church community and neighborhood. We took them food and sat and talked with them. As a young child, I thought it was a boring and a waste of time, but looking back now it was a powerful lesson on the ability to make a difference for someone else.
Get more information on Dr. Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project
Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW is a therapist, self & relationship expert, media contributor, and director of Wasatch Family Therapy. Visit www.wasatchfamilytherapy.com for individual, couple, family, & group counseling services designed to strengthen you and your family. We treat mental health and relationship problems in children, adolescents, and adults.For additional emotional health & relationship resources connect with Julie at www.juliehanks.com.
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