Everyone needs heroes. They are those we admire and wish to emulate. They help us define our aspirations. Developmentally, very young children choose their parents, another family member, or a teacher as their hero. When they get a little older they choose superheroes like Batman and Spiderman, or fairy tale characters like Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” or Belle in “Beauty and the Beast“. Older school children and young teens may favor slightly older peers who achieve in academics, sports, or the fine arts. Often they select sports figures or pop stars. Older teens and adults usually define their heroes based on strong character traits and the degree to which the individuals have helped humankind.
Heroes are a catalyst for growth and change. Preschoolers and early primary school children receive care and nurturance from their parents and teachers, their heroes. Often their play reflects the kind of care they receive. Watching them during play tells you what they are seeing and how they are integrating it. In the best of situations, they are learning to be loving and kind, caring, and compassionate--all traits of a true hero.
While some may suggest that superheroes or fairy tale characters are not the best role models, they have an important place in a child’s development. Young children have little control over their world. When they put on their superhero or princess costume they feel strong, able to conquer their foes, and overcome seemingly impossible obstacles. When they hear stories or watch DVDs about Spiderman, Batman, or strong female fairy tale characters they learn that to be a hero one must use discernment in making choices. They learn humility and patience; the superhero doesn’t always vanquish the villain on the first try. They learn to stand for what is right, and that protecting the weak is a compassionate act.
When older children and young teens choose pop stars as their heroes they may be confusing being a celebrity with heroism. However, these idols can give young people the hope that they, too, might be able to achieve something that feels out of reach. There are pop stars that do exhibit heroic qualities: those who start charities for the less fortunate; those who travel abroad to provide entertainment for troops during war; those who are honest about the struggles of being a celebrity.
When children of this age choose an older peer as a role model it is often someone who has achieved something they wish to achieve themselves. Whether it is in sports, fine arts, or academics, older peers can model and speak to the hard work and perseverance it takes to succeed and achieve a goal. They can demonstrate that goals are only reached with help from others. They can model graciousness by speaking and behaving as an equal to others and not above them.
Older teens and adults who choose their heroes based on character qualities can learn that they are complex, not perfect, human beings. Real heroes, whether male or female, express a range of feelings. They may be stoic when necessary but they also express sadness, loss, anger, and even fear. They show joy in life and in their accomplishments.
Real heroes make mistakes. They then rethink their actions and show us that behavior can be changed. Heroes create new possibilities and develop the skills necessary to make them realities. They are not afraid of hard work and know that they will face obstacles. They live life fully and make the best of whatever they face.
At every age people need heroes, but how do we help our children choose the best ones? Reading good literature with them from Greek myths to modern day biographies reveals the traits of positive heroes. Newspapers and television documentaries have stories of ordinary people who have performed heroic acts.
Talking with children about what makes a true hero helps them develop discernment in those they choose to emulate.
We as humans will always need, want, and have heroes. Effective parents will study the qualities of true models and help their children choose their heroes with care.