Heroes Matter



By Mary Ellen Christy




Our children are living in complicated times with the influence of social media, identity politics and a 24-hour news cycle. Never have children been more in need of understanding heroes. Our children are barraged with confusing and mixed messages from people who now have a platform for quickly distributing information or misinformation. The rules of debate have replaced the art of discourse on all cable news and talk shows. Children who are exposed to these things are truly at risk for moral confusion, dissatisfaction with their own lives and an inability to initiate solutions for life’s frequent challenges.


Before we talk about why heroes matter in the lives of children, we first need to define what a hero is. The dictionary definition of a hero is: “a person of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his or her brave deeds and novel qualities.” Humanity’s fascination with heroes stretches back into the dawn of history and may have its origins in the beginning of speech.  Known myths, legends and heroic folktales go back many millennia and have common themes. All Heroic stories from Jason and the Argonauts set in classical times, to the fairytale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, to the contemporary Harry Potter illustrate commonality of heroic themes but also a diverse range of heroes.


Carl Jung, the great psychologist identified that great myths are far more than entertainment.  In the great myths of all times and cultures, we see certain recurring and common story elements.  These common elements symbolically express profound, universal and timeless ideas which he called the archetypes.  Jung further identified archetypical events: birth, death, separation from parents, and marriage; archetypal figures: mother, father, God, the wise elders, the fool, the trickster and the hero; and archetypal motifs:  the creation, the deluge, the apocalypse and most important of all the eternal struggle between good and evil.


When children are born, they are among the neediest and most helpless creatures in the entire animal kingdom.  Much of what children need to learn follows a proscribed developmental pattern and occurs naturally.  But the social, emotional and character development of children is dependent upon their parents, who are not only their first teachers but also their first heroes.


Because parents are their children’s first and most immediate caretakers, it stands to reason that parents are the chief architects of a child’s character and help to build a carefully constructed scaffold of good values.  Through the reading and telling of stories, the singing of songs and family conversations, parents impart to their young children an understanding of basic human needs and experiences interwoven with a discussion of values.   Tales of heroes are particularly influential in communicating good values to children because heroes are people of distinguished courage who motivate and inspire others.  Heroes save or improve the lives of others.  Heroes are courageous, selfless, humble, patient and caring.  Telling children stories in addition to reading to them and encouraging family storytelling gives a child an active learning experience. All true learning requires active engagement.  Learning is never a spectator sport.


PAW Patrol.

D’Aulaires book of Greek Myths.


Young children naturally identify with true heroes.  That is the secret to the appeal of Mr. Rogers, as well as PAW Patrol, Thomas the Tank Engine and Spiderman.  When children are school age, it is the perfect time to begin to introduce Greek mythology. An excellent choice of books to share with your child is D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths.


As children begin to form more independent social friendships, they begin to seek out heroes from their peer group.  Oftentimes it is someone who, in their estimation, has power. This is the age when bullies make their unwelcome appearance.  Next month’s article will be focused exclusively on bullying. Parents must be vigilant during these school age years to help their children sort out the situation in their own minds and arrive at the logical conclusion that bullies are very different from heroes. Bullies do not use power to educate, inspire and improve lives but rather to intimidate, control and diminish lives.  This is an age when children will “float” an idea in conversation either at a meal, in the car or when you are tucking them in at night.  You want to encourage them to talk. Don’t make too many definitive or judgmental comments, instead encourage them by saying something like “Tell me more.”


US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River.


Teenage children have matured enough to select their own heroes and to comprehend that a heroic person, like all human beings, have complicated personalities.  Hence, people may perform one extraordinary heroic deed such as Captain Sully who saved many lives by landing US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River and then returned to living his ordinary life.  Older teenagers and young adults are also capable of reflective thought, meaning they can revere a grandfather who distinguished himself during WWII but can also understand that his sometimes politically incorrect mindset is more of a reflection of the times he comes from and does not detract from his heroic deeds.


Scott Allison, who writes for Psychology Today, has identified five ways that knowledge of heroes improves the lives of us all, but especially children:

  1.  Heroes produce in us a recently identified emotion called elevation, meaning that when we experience or hear of a heroic act, it produces in us a mixture of awe, reverence and admiration for a morally beautiful act.
  2.  Heroes heal our own psychic wounds. Tens of thousands of years ago people huddled around fires for protection and warmth, thus began the tradition of storytelling. Hero stories calmed people’s fears, buoyed people’s spirits, nourished their hopes and fostered the important values of strength and resilience.
  3.  Heroes nourish our connections with other people; storytelling is always a community building activity – as it was in ancient times. Hero stories affirm the community and promote a strong sense of identity within the community and the hero performs actions that exemplify the values of the community
  4.  Heroes show us how to transform our lives by following the development of their stories.
  5.  Heroes turn us into heroes ourselves.


If you want your children to be heroes, encourage them to let go of their egos.  Don’t let them engage in heroic deeds for their own gratification.  Encourage them to initiate an active response to something they are passionate about.  If it’s the environment, they can start a recycling club – help them seek out national organizations of which they can join.


Teach them to put others before themselves.  Have them think of the consequences of their actions; for example, if they are working on a group project, they need to accept the responsibility for completing their portion. We all want our children to be ready to act when other children might be willing to remain passive while others are being picked on or bullied.  Encourage your children to read about the lives of heroes – present day and historical.  Have them search out quotes because nothing expresses heroism better than someone’s own words.


Abraham Lincoln “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test his character, give him power.”


A few examples of heroic ideas expressed in the words of my own personal heroes are:

  1.  Horace Mann, the great educator: “Be ashamed to die until you’ve done something for the good of humanity.”
  2.  John Fitzgerald Kennedy:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
  3.  Eleanor Roosevelt:  “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
  4.  Martin Luther King Jr.: “ We may have all come on different ships but we are all in the same boat now.”
  5.  Abraham Lincoln “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test his character, give him power.”
  6.  Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “Intense love does not measure, it just gives.”


And an unattributed quote which I believe best embodies the heroic spirit: “There is no limit to what can be accomplished, if no one expects to get credit.”