True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.

Arthur Ashe

Who are your child’s heroes? Musicians, sports stars, your local firemen? Depending on who they are, it might be time for a role model makeover. But before recommending new candidates for their hero roster, it’s best to determine why children—and adults—need them, and what qualities make someone a hero.

Researchers have numerous views on heroes and heroism. Scott LaBarge, ethics scholar at Santa Clara University, believes a hero is a mirror in which we seek to see an ideal version of ourselves. He says, “Our heroes are symbols . . . of all the qualities we would like to possess and all the ambitions we would like to satisfy.” He explains that choosing a role model is subjective and personal. We define our ideals by the heroes we choose, and our ideals, in turn, define us. As an example, he says a person who chooses women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony as a hero will have a very different sense of human excellence than someone who chooses a contestant on a reality TV show.

Meanwhile, through his research, Philip Zimbardo, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, believes that heroes aren’t always born to display greatness and heroism but are made through heroic choices. He concludes that “every one of us can be a hero . . . acts of heroism don’t just arrive from truly exceptional people but from people placed in the right circumstance, given the necessary tools to transform compassion into heroic action.”

Zimbardo identifies four elements of heroism:

  • Voluntary action
  • Serving others in need to defend certain ideals
  • Recognizing the risks to one’s personal health or reputation and accepting the anticipated cost
  • Taking action without an expectation of reward or personal gain

Considered in this light, our culture’s tendency to focus on celebrities as role models falls way short of satisfying our need for true heroes. While celebrities are talented individuals with exceptional gifting, what makes someone a hero is not personal appeal and excellence in a particular area—but how well that person serves others. In other words: the greater the service, the greater the hero.

So, what can you do if your child needs some new heroes? LaBarge and Zimbardo have some suggestions:

  • Look at your own heroes first: Who are they, and what do they represent? Are they still the right kind of mirror for your ideals? And most important, are you living up to those ideals? After considering your own heroes, talk to your child about why you chose them.
  • Teach your child through stories: Look at the lives of other role models with your child. Consider Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Gandhi, or people around you who you believe exhibit heroic qualities. “Teaching about heroes really isn’t hard,” says LaBarge. “Heroic lives have their appeal built in; all we need to do is make an effort to tell the stories.”
  • Keep it real: When discussing heroes, be sure to cast them in a realistic light. LaBarge believes the greatest obstacle to appreciating heroes today is pervasive cynicism and skepticism, but the antidote is realism about human limitations. “Washington and Jefferson held slaves … Martin Luther King Jr. is accused of … plagiarizing. We need to separate out the things that make our heroes noteworthy, and forgive the shortcomings that blemish their heroic perfection,” he says.
  • Encourage heroism in your child: Zimbardo, founder of the Heroic Imagination Project, believes heroism can be learned and has created a program for kids that develops their empathy and makes them more aware of helping others. “Based on our insights into heroism, we’ve put together a toolkit for potential heroes, especially young heroes in training, who already have opportunities to act heroically when they’re kids, such as by opposing bullying,” he says.

Although we may become discouraged by their human frailties, the quest for heroes who inspire and motivate us is worthwhile. “The critical moral contribution of heroes is the expansion of our sense of possibility,” says LaBarge. “If most of us, as Thoreau said, live lives of quiet desperation, it is because our horizons of possibility are too cramped. Heroes can help us lift our eyes a little higher.”

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