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SALT LAKE CITY -- Superman, Batman, Cinderella -- these are the fictional figures children obsess over. And why not? Everyone needs a hero, a person to look up to and admire. But what do you think of when you hear the word "hero"? For many, the title has become synonymous with celebrities, inventors, sports figures, musicians and other individuals with special gifts or powers, excellent performance or other noteworthy accomplishment. So in a culture consumed with pop stars and superheroes, how do you help your children spot true life heroes? Therapist Julie Hanks shares four tips.
What is a hero? Heroes don't have to have magical powers or be involved in monumental feats. 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. Zimbardo defines a hero simply as "a person who acts on behalf of others or in defense of integrity or a moral cause."
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 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?
Encourage social awareness and action
The greater the number of 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 instead. 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 at lunch, walking away from a group of friends when they start to gossip or reporting an act of bullying they witnessed on the playground.
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 tell 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 asks his son daily, "Whose 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.
Be a hero yourself
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 Sundays 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 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.