Seven-year-old Ben S. has three heroes in life: Superman ("because he's really strong and he can punch your head off"), New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady ("because he's really great at football"), and his mom ("because she works really hard at my school").
Eleven-year-old Jacqueline L. cites her parents as her heroes, and rejects the idea that a hero must be famous or especially brave.
"It's someone who sets a good example for you, someone you can look up to," she explains. "But if you don't have great family members or your mother or father died, then you don't have a lot of direction. So you would probably pick a firefighter who went into the World Trade Center."
One of life's great certainties (along with death and taxes) is that somewhere in the course of your child's education at least one teacher will ask him to compose an essay about a favorite hero. It's a routine assignment, but these days concern about the effects of terrorism and the darker aspects of media culture have parents, educators, and even policy makers paying close attention to a child's need for inspiring role models.
"Lots of kids use sports and entertainment figures as heroes," says Jeanne Meyers, co-founder of MyHero.com, a website devoted to children's heroes. "What we've observed in classes is that kids learn to rethink their choice of heroes. They might say that a celebrity like Jennifer Lopez is their hero. Then they ask, 'Is Jennifer Lopez doing something to help people in her community?'"
"What they initially present to you are the media stereotypes," agrees Mo Randall, a ninth-grade English teacher at Roxbury Latin School in Boston. "For boys, the heroes might be from hip-hop culture or the WWF (World Wrestling Federation). As a teacher, you have to work to expand what they think is heroic."
Randall's students spent six weeks studying The Odyssey. They discover that ancient heroes, unlike modern ones, were warrior s who also cried and made mistakes.
Literature can broaden a student's understanding of heroism, but influencing a child's behavior requires more than reading and class discussion. If students are asked to write about a hero, but aren't expected to emulate the hero through good deeds of their own, then the effect is minimal, educators say.
Different Ages, Different Heroes
Researchers in moral development say children's heroes follow a fairly predictable pattern. Young children often choose their parents or teachers as heroes, because the immediate caretaker has the greatest moral authority. As children grow and begin to question their parents' influence, they choose peers as heroes -- often someone close to their own age who has "made it big" as a rock star or sports figure. Older teens admire people who have the ability to think for themselves. In adulthood, there is a new appreciation for family heroes, those who worked hard and sacrificed to help us get where we are today.
Patricia Harned, Ph.D., director of Character Development and Research for the non-profit Ethics Resource Center (Ethics.org) in Washington D.C., believes parents and teachers need to show children that heroes are often complex people with less than flattering attributes. The grandfather who won a medal for bravery in World War II may also have been a bigot who used racial slurs at the dinner table. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., while a great leader, was also once accused of plagiarism. Rather than shy away from discussing these moral discrepancies, Harned urged parents and teachers to confront them head-on.
"That's an important message because nowadays, that's the reality about public figures," says Harned. "It's important for children to realize that even though they've made mistakes and done things they regret, they can change their way of behaving. Being a hero is the sum of a life, not just an event that happens. The mistakes we make are just as important as the successes, if we learn from them."