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Superheroes in movies have come a long way from the days of daredevil martial arts and aerial tricks. Today's superheroes dazzle us with their impenetrable shields, indestructible skin, retractable claws, web shooters, and mentally-controlled chains. Oh, and let's not forget about telekinesis and telepathy. Very cool, indeed.
After the thrill, I am left with a few questions. What do our children learn about heroism from these superheroes? Will they come away believing that courage comes from having magical powers? How will they figure out that true bravery is someone making the decision to do what is right when it's hard, or painful, or awkward, or risky?
When I talk with children about superheroes, they describe mystical skills, fantastic powers, and all kinds of amazing feats. Even with more questioning, most don't mention what these superheroes are trying to accomplish, like saving the world from evil, defending the defenseless, or fighting for justice.
Most children aren't absorbing lessons about how to walk through daily life as everyday heroes, choosing to do what is challenging but just, difficult but right. I'm not sure they see that real-life heroes are actually ordinary humans who simply act with independence and bravery when they see others who are heartless or hurtful, unkind or unfair, callous or cruel. With no special powers or skills, heroes show us what every one of us can be, at our best.
Heroes aren't losers when they fail; they are winners because they try. The story of the hero's journey has endured precisely because it speaks to unpretentious human possibility. The suffrage work of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton took place at a time when many found these efforts both rash and contemptible. Ditto the civil rights efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Elie Wiesel, Harvey Milk, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Malala Yousafzai. None of these figures accomplished everything they wanted, and they certainly did not have the benefit of cinematic tricks. Their heroism was in the attempt, in the willingness to take great risks for the sake of principles and beliefs.
It's important to recognize that heroes also act despite their personal flaws and limitations. Abraham Lincoln led the US through a great military conflict as well as a constitutional and moral crisis. He kept the country from splitting into two despite having fierce enemies and while suffering from severe bouts of depression. Like so many other heroes, Lincoln exceeded his flaws and exceeded the predictions of many of his contemporaries. He was heroic in part because of those flaws, not in spite of them.
Don't get me wrong. I am in awe of the skill it takes to create all manner of superhero special effects. But our children need models of ordinary humans who try to do the right thing even when it's hard, even when no one else is doing it, even when they are not sure how it will turn out. Superheroes don't quite fill that role.
I challenge parents to model heroism and to point out the heroic acts they see in the most commonplace situations. If we are paying attention, we will notice small brave moments all around us: admitting to an embarrassing mistake and offering to fix it; stating an unpopular opinion or belief; speaking up when a classist or racist statement is made; asking people to listen to each other with respect; not chiming in when others are gossiping. Then we can talk with our children about what made these moments heroic. It's that simple. No cool tricks or impressive theatrics. Just ordinary heroes taking real everyday risks, unsure of the outcome but sure of what is right, honorable, and just.
For inspiration, stories of child heroes can be found here.
Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo shows people of all ages how to be everyday heroes. His work can be found here.