Kids need heroes. Developmentally, children seek out role models to help them figure out who they are, to learn how to relate to others, and to understand their place in the world. Choosing heroes is a necessary and natural part of growing up.
At their best, heroes can inspire the fearful to take risks, encourage the wavering to persevere through difficulties, and turn the selfish outward to help others. But what if heroes fall? The news is full of stories about highly successful people—like Tom Brady, Lance Armstrong, Brian Williams, and Miley Cyrus—who failed or reportedly behaved in ways that made us cringe. If we’ve ever had that knot-in-the-stomach experience from a public figure’s downfall, it can help us realize their failure, at some level, felt personal; someone we respected let us down. And this is how kids feel when their hero falls: disappointed, betrayed, and maybe even foolish for believing in that hero in the first place.
So what do you do if your child’s hero fails to live up to heroic standards? Here are some ways to talk about a tarnished role model, disappointment in the former hero, and the qualities that make for a true hero.
- Transform failure into a teachable moment: If your child is younger than ten years old, he or she may find it difficult to understand how a celebrity or sports hero can be a great performer and yet engage in shocking activities. For a young child, the best approach is a simple one. You can say this hero is human just like the rest of us and now has an opportunity to learn from his or her mistakes. Explain that people can act differently in different situations. Actors, unfortunately, are not the heroic characters they portray, and an athlete’s ability on the field doesn’t always equal good behavior on the street. For older kids, find the balance between recognizing the hero is a flawed human being and yet holding the person accountable for his or her actions. Avoid focusing on negative news and, instead, turn the conversation—and the hero’s less than perfect behavior—into an opportunity for a teachable moment.
- Get a clearer perspective of the fallen hero. A way to soften disappointment in a fallen hero is to help your child understand that we see only a small part of who that very talented and charismatic person really is. People portrayed in the media have agents, publicists, and other professionals who help them create and manage their public image. As a result, we most often see only what those professional handlers want us to see: the highlights and best moments of a hero’s performance—not the overall person. The good news is, while the media may limit our view of well-known personalities, we have the advantage of seeing the people around us more clearly—our family members, friends, and the members of our community. Consider the people you know. Is there someone you think could be a new local hero to your child? Suggest why he or she would be a better role model.
- Discuss what qualities make a person a true hero. Everyone is drawn to giftedness, but the desire to identify with a celebrity’s talent and fame can distract from appreciating true heroism. Ask your child what he or she thinks makes a person a hero. Is it talent and good looks? Or is it helping others, being reliable, loyal, courageous, and honest? How do true heroes respond to their own failures? Do they take responsibility for their actions or blame it on others? Focus your child’s attention on the importance of character and heroic acts done for others rather than talent and good looks.
In a perfect world, heroes would always be worthy of our admiration—but seeing how this isn’t always possible, the hard lessons of life can open the door to important conversations that can help kids choose better role models and mature their understanding of the world around them.