Nurturing Heroism in Children

True heroes don’t always appear on screen or score the winning goal
mom holding cape-wearing daughter up in the air
© Can Stock Photo / Choreograph

Heroes. They're not like you and me, right? Actually, true heroes are regular people, and their "capes" are cut from a variety of cloths. You may be surprised to learn that heroism is actually a topic of serious academic exploration! We interviewed Dr. Jeremy Frimer, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Winnipeg, whose research focuses on “moral exemplars”–better-known as heroes. Who are they, what motivates them, and how can we encourage heroic behaviour in our kids?

Hero worship

How did you become interested in heroism and who are your heroes?

As a teenager, I learned a story about my grandparents that set the stage for my own life. They had the misfortune of being Jews in Poland in 1939. They narrowly evaded capture, remaining on the run throughout the war. In 1944, my mother was born and named for victory (Victoria). Learning about the atrocities and my fortune to ever be born left a permanent mark on my thinking. As I grew into adulthood, I had a strong sense that my life itself was a gift, one that I desired very strongly to pay forward. Only, I didn’t know how. In 2004, I met Dr. Larry Walker at the University of British Columbia. He is a professor of psychology, and deeply interested in understanding heroes for the purpose of raising more of them in the next generation. I pleaded with him to let me into his (overfull) course, which he did. Over the next seven years, I completed a masters and PhD with him, and found my calling. Hero development is my way of paying forward the gift that is my life. One of my greatest heroes is also one of my closest friends. He works as a humanitarian aid worker overseas, at times managing camps of a million refugees, for example. I love how he merges the welfare of others with his own personal and career ambitions.

Heroes just do more good stuff than non-heroes.

What is the difference between a heroic person and a “merely” extraordinary one?

Heroes are always extraordinary because heroes stand out. But extraordinary people are not always heroes. …Extraordinary people can stand out for reasons unrelated to what a person might see as heroic, such as athletics, business, or the arts. Few people would deny that Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga are extraordinary. But not everyone sees them as heroes. Heroes are both extraordinary and resonate with our personally held values.

By what standard is an act measured in order to be classified as heroic? That is, where is the line between everyday selflessness and something extraordinary?

I think of heroism as being in the eye of the beholder...The more a person alleviates suffering, overcomes injustice, and lives by high standards of decency and purity, the more other people will see that person as a moral hero. I see heroism as a matter of degree. I doubt that any hard-and-fast line exists between being a hero and not, aside from using the word “hero” to label a person. Heroes just do more good stuff than non-heroes.

The anatomy of a hero

What sort of larger categories do heroic acts fall into?

In my research so far, I have focused on two types: (a) a brave type is usually known for a single courageous act, and (b) a caring type is known for many months or years of service to a group, community, or cause. Of course, other categories come to mind as well, such as athletics, arts, science, and so on.

What personality characteristics are present more frequently in heroes (and less often in ordinary people?)

Heroes score higher than ordinary people on a number of personality variables. Interestingly, personality traits are not among them...Traits are thought to have a strong genetic basis, suggesting that heroism may not be so much in our nature. Heroes’ defining characteristics emerge when we interview them about their lives...each person tells a unique story. Yet certain features or themes come up with everyone, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the person...Compared to those of ordinary people, the life stories of heroes have:

  • more themes of “agency” (empowerment, mastery, achievement, and victory)
  • more themes of “communion” (dialogue, togetherness, help, and love)
  • a more positive, optimistic tone
  • more themes of “redemption,” where a negative event somehow gives way to a positive outcome
  • more recollections of the needs and suffering of others when the hero was still a child 
  • more recollections of “helper” figures when the hero was still a child
  • more recollections of a secure attachment to an adult figure when the hero was still a child

Life stories are largely influenced by our upbringing and culture, suggesting that heroism is something that is a product of experience...Heroes are not saints; they come with their flaws like the rest of us.

On the surface, heroism looks altruistic...Beneath the surface, the self-interests of heroes are well-nurtured.

Is true heroism strictly altruistic or can it be partially (or even completely) motivated by selfish factors and still be considered heroic?

On the surface, heroism looks altruistic. Whether they are giving up money, risking life and limb, or taking on hardship by fighting injustice, heroes are losing something material. But I suspect that they are making up for the material loss with some kind of psychological gain. Being seen as a hero by our peers is a pretty big reward. Knowing that we acted in accord with our conscience can make a person feel pretty good. In my research, I found that motives of heroes are unique: they merge their self-interested motives with their pro-social motives in a way that suggests that the two are interlocking. Beneath the surface, the self-interests of heroes are well-nurtured.

What's the down-side of being a hero?

Recently, some of my colleagues discovered a surprising phenomenon. I used to assume that heroes would be respected and admired by the people around them. But the opposite is true. You might call it “hero bashing”...What seems to happen is that the hero reminds us of a standard of behaviour that we personally value but know that we, ourselves, fail to live up to. Wouldn’t it be great if we took that opportunity to rise to the occasion? Unfortunately, that is not what usually happens. Usually, we reject the hero to restore our own self-esteem. The good news is that if people affirm their self-worth before meeting a hero, hero bashing doesn’t happen.

The making of a hero

Children often admire “heroes” of certain types – sports idols and “superheroes,” in particular. Why is there so much emphasis on these types and how can we encourage kids to value other forms of heroism?

Children admire people known for their skill and celebrity...whereas adults also admire people known for the good they do in other people’s lives...This is odd because the vast majority of children and adults think of themselves as pro-social. Recently, I discovered that this “moral self concept” seems to not filter into people’s goals, especially for children. When I ask people about their goals, the themes that emerge are more self-interested...For children, this is very pronounced, and may explain why the heroes of children are sports idols and celebrities. By the age of 35, this goal motivation is equally as self-promoting as it is pro-social. In other words, with age, people come to connect their goals with their values...I haven’t yet tested this idea, I wonder if parents can accelerate this growth by asking adolescents about how their current goals connect to their own values?

To foster heroism in our children, we set an example and provide them with opportunities to find their own heroic niche.

What inspires people to behave heroically in the first place and how can we foster heroism in our children?

It may seem that people who have spent months, years, or decades making other people’s lives better are acting out of a spontaneous flash of insight, and driven by altruism. But, after learning about the individual persons behind heroic lives, I’ve come to see how gradual and social the process really is. Future heroes have role models that serve as a template for how to live. They meet people along the way that offer them opportunities. And the heroic acts are very rarely done alone. Usually, heroes are surrounded by other heroes with a similar vision and mission. To foster heroism in our children, we set an example and provide them with opportunities to find their own heroic niche.

Can you suggest some practical, concrete ways for a parent to consciously provide opportunities, lay some groundwork or create an environment that engenders future heroes?

What parents can do is cultivate both skills and purpose in their children, without any need for connecting the two. To cultivate skills, a work ethic, and ambition, set a good example. Children take after their parents a great deal. Show interest in and encourage their goal pursuits - in school, sports, hobbies, etc. Avoid rewarding them as people (“You are such a smart person”) as it tends to backfire. By rewarding their effort and the process of trying (“Excellent effort,” “I like how you kept at it when it was hard”), children learn to persist in the face of difficulties and develop stable self-esteem. To cultivate purpose, (safely) share experiences with children where they can see first-hand how people act out a greater calling. This could be anything from volunteering for a local event, helping a neighbour, or volunteering at a local soup kitchen. Talk about those experiences. Encourage your child to talk about why you were there. Think of those conversations as co-authoring a first draft of the child’s life story. It’s that life story that will ultimately act as a moral compass down the road, harnessing skills for a heroic purpose.

Bringing up heroes

We also contacted Dr. Frimer’s mentor, Dr. Larry Walker, who provided us with some useful advice for bringing up kids who are equipped with the stuff of heroes:

1. Help children understand why they should behave in a way that helps others

  • be sensitive to their level of cognitive and social development
  • use rationales, not heavy-handed rules
  • ask leading questions, so that they come up with the “right” answers rather than lecturing at them
  • engineer situations so that they “discover” what is appropriate (and so that they become self-controlled)

2. Provide role-taking experiences and promote empathy

  • focus attention on consequences for others vs. self-focus
  • encourage sensitivity and emotional responsiveness
  • identify emotions • engineer leadership experiences and group activity (which require children to take into account others’ perspectives and interests)
  • expose them to the needs of others and provide opportunities to help others
  • encourage them in pro-social activities and goals

3. Set the moral climate with your own behavior

  • demonstrate openness to new ideas and people
  • show sensitivity to others’ thoughts and feelings
  • express emotions appropriately (empathy, self-control)

4. Foster children’s sense of efficacy, independence, and responsibility

  • have children meaningfully participate in family decision-making, as appropriate to their level of development
  • encourage an appropriate level of self-esteem
  • foster independent judgment and initiative; help them become good leaders
  • have them do things that benefit others (household chores, acts of kindness)

5. Model appropriate behaviour and reward imitation

  • model the behavior, label it, and explain
  • surround children with mentors who will scaffold their development

6. Foster your child’s sense of connection with others

  • gradually move from a focus on family and be more inclusive of others
  • when people deeply feel a shared humanity (rather than loyalty to some in-group), they are more likely to help others, including strangers

7. Help children maintain a positive outlook and to find good or benefit out of challenging experiences

  • try to avoid a defeatist attitude in children so that they feel they can overcome difficulties … this helps to maintain initiative and persistence in the face of obstacles … often necessary in “heroic” situations

*Originally published March 10, 2013