When I was little, I pretended to be Wonder Woman, my brother was Spiderman, and together we would save the world.
It’s exhilarating to be seven-years-old and convinced of your awesome power to help people. I want my kids to feel the same rush that comes from seeing themselves as heroes.
But I also want more for them: I want them to actually BE heroes themselves, in their real life. The schoolyard needs them.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, every single day 60,000 students avoid going to school because they are afraid they are going to be bullied. Even more shocking is that their fear might be justified: 25 percent of public schools report that bullying occurs among students on a daily or weekly basis.
How to Raise a Hero Rather Than a Bystander
BYSTANDERS stand by and watch while other kids are bullied. HEROES don’t let bullying happen: they intervene, get help. They are out to save the world, one kid at a time.
Bystanders watch while evil takes root but are too frightened, or apathetic, to take a stand. All grown up, bystanders did nothing while US soldiers abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Bystanders are that silent majority that makes meanness somehow acceptable, even commonplace.
Heroes, on the other hand, have two key qualities, according to heroism researchers Philip Zimbardo and Zeno Franco. First, they live out their values and their beliefs. They defend TRUTH with a capital T. Second, they incur some personal risk to do so.
Most kids, and probably their parents, too, fear the consequences of standing up to a childhood bully. What if the bully turns his wrath on our child? Acting heroically might mean that our children stand a chance of social, emotional, and physical harm.
Assuming that the situation isn’t out of Lord of the Flies (i.e., there are adults in charge somewhere, even if they are a bit asleep at the wheel), I would prefer my kids take those risks rather than become bystanders. Here’s how we can make it more likely we raise heroes than bystanders:
I want my kids to be happy and safe, of course, but I also want them to be heroes. I don’t think this is a delusion of grandeur; I think it’s necessary, and the time is right to nurture a new generation of heroes.
Do your kids know what heroes are? Do you want your kids to act heroically, even if it involves some risk?
If you want to learn more about how to bring out the hero in your kids—and yourself—check out the Greater Good Science Center event, “Goodness, Evil, and Everyday Heroism,” featuring a presentation by Philip Zimbardo. February 26th at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, whose mission it is to teach skills for a thriving, resilient and compassionate society. Best known for her science-based parenting advice, Dr. Carter follows the scientific literature in neuroscience, sociology, and psychology to understand ways that we can teach children skills for happiness, emotional intelligence, and resilience. She is the author of the new book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents and of a blog called Half Full. Dr. Carter also has a private consulting practice helping families and schools structure children's lives for happiness; she lives near San Francisco with her family.
Zimbardo, Philip and Zeno Franco (2006), “The Banality of Heroism” http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/greatergood/archive/2006fallwinter/franc....
Rigby, Ken and Johnson, Bruce. “Expressed readiness of Australian schoolchildren to act as bystanders of children who are being bullied.” Education Psychology. Vol 26(3), June 2006, pp. 425-440.