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Being A Childhood Hero Is Not So Great

November 4, 2013

TLC Guest Blogger: William Steele, PsyD, MSW

Given the tragic and often traumatic events children are exposed to, we often hear stories of brave acts carried out by children. Many are called heroes.

Emalee Ayers was taught how to call 911 at age 4. Shortly after she called and saved her mother’s life, she was called a hero. Eric Cafazzo, age 10, applied the Heimlich maneuver on his younger sister and saved her life. He was called a hero. He learned to do the Heimlich maneuver at one of his Cub Scout meetings.

Seven-year-old Titus Adams was called a hero for running a half a mile through a mud field, crawling under an electric fence and pushing through a barbed wire gate to get to a dairy farm so someone could call for help. His mother’s car had flipped over five times. She was thrown out and was unconscious. He left his 5-year-old sister in the car, telling her not to cry and that he would be back (www.chinastrategies.com/lithero.htm).

Six-year-old Robert Licata from Sandy Hook Elementary was called a hero for leading a group of children to safety (www.policymic.com/articles/20869/10-heartwarming-stories-of-heroism-from-sandy-hook-shooting).

First, what these children did may be heroic or acts of bravery. I think it is important to distinguish between the two. Secondly, regardless of whether these were brave acts or acts of heroism, we need to appreciate the burden that comes with being called a hero, not only for the children who emerge as heroes but for those involved in the same situation as their “heroic” peer.

Dick Stodghill, veteran of the Normandy Invasion and Korean War and today a daily columnist, presents the following example of the difference between being a hero and acting bravely: “When a fireman is hosing down a burning building ready to collapse, he is acting bravely (doing what he was trained to do). If he runs into the heart of the flames to save another person with slight chance of survival, he is a hero.” (www.stodg.blogspot.com/2008/06/brave-vs-heroic.html).

When individuals do what they have been trained to do in the face of great challenges, they are acting bravely, as were several of the children in the examples we cited. They were trained to call 911, and in one case give the Heimlich maneuver.

That such young children could also do what they were trained to do when faced with a real danger is quite remarkable and certainly evidence of the value of early training regarding emergencies, strangers and other crisis situations. Perhaps the other two children were trained to run for help or to a safe place. Perhaps their reactions were instinctive and heroic.

Unfortunately, whether children act bravely or heroically, referring to them as heroes can become a significant burden because of how others now relate to them, as well as the expectations that come with being a hero.

In most cases heroes do not see themselves as heroes, as they feel they were simply doing what needed to be done. Most will tell you they hate being labeled as such because of the ways others begin to relate to them. Heroes are immediately placed on a pedestal and viewed as different by others, often as untouchable and perfect. Seen as perfect, they begin to find it difficult to openly express their fears, anxieties or worries about everyday developmental challenges to those around them. They are expected to be able to manage anything.

For these reasons, heroes often feel alienated from their immediate peers, especially those who may have been involved in the same threatening situation. For some of those peers, that hero is a constant reminder of the shame or guilt they may experience because they did not act in a similar manner.

This causes them to pull away from or totally avoid the hero. There really is no benefit to calling a child a hero. However when we refer to their actions as brave, we reinforce the value of what they were trained to do or the instinctive actions they took. We prevent alienating them from their peers, from being perfect and from expectations too difficult for children to manage.

We do need our heroes. They give us hope. They reinforce our goodness and strength. They give us a path to follow in the face of significant life challenges. They remind us of what is possible.

But let’s allow children to grow up being brave rather than possibly burdened by being called heroes.

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