Children today are starved for the image of real heroes. Celebrities are not the same thing as heroes. Heroes existed way before celebrities ever did, even though celebrities now outshine heroes in children's consciousness.
Worshiping celebrities leaves children with a distinctly empty feeling -- it doesn't teach that they'll have to make sacrifices if they want to achieve anything worthwhile. No- talents become celebrities all the time. The result is that people don't seem to care about achievement or talent -- fame is the only objective.
What is a hero? Despite immense differences in cultures, heroes around the world generally share a number of traits that instruct and inspire people. A hero does something worth talking about, but a hero goes beyond mere fame or celebrity. The hero lives a life worthy of imitation. If they serve only their own fame, they may be celebrities but not heroes. Heroes are catalysts for change. They create new possibilities. They have a vision, and the skill and charm to implement their vision.
Heroes may also be fictional. Children may identify with a character because of the values projected. People tend to grow to be like the people that they admire, but if a child never has any heroes what images will he copy? Adults need heroes too, but the need is even more urgent for children because they don't know how to think abstractly. But they can imagine what their hero would do in the circumstances, and it gives them a useful reference point to build abstract thinking skills.
Good reading selections can help your children find their own heroes -- to provide the emotional experience of admiring a figure they can look up to. Through the wide variety of reading experiences and choices of heroes, your children will find those models that best suit them.
It is important that children become familiar with worthy examples -- both real and fictional -- that they can emulate.
This does not mean that everything they read needs to be populated with heroes. Children will turn away from fictional villains they don't like. It is important to avoid children's stories in which the hero commits and gets away with evil actions. Don't assume that because a story is traditional it is automatically the literature you want your child to read. It is easy to think "that's o.k., it's a traditional children's story and I know it isn't dirty" without giving a moment's thought to the other messages that the story might be subconsciously conveying to your child.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears is certainly a traditional story, and most parents buy the book almost automatically, without a thought to the message. Goldilocks is lost and frightened, goes to a house and knocks, but no one is home. But that doesn't justify the crimes that follow. Yes, crimes! Breaking and entering, petty vandalism and theft -- even the nerve to go to sleep in a bed which doesn't belong to her either.
Is this really what you intended to teach your child -- that if you get lost it is alright to break into anybody's house and use their property? The story may be traditional, but these aren't the values you want to be teaching. It is so easy to assume that a well known book is okay, and select it for your child without even being aware of the subtle messages that it conveys -- messages that may be having far more influence on your child than you realize. After all, aren't you the one that told your child that this was a good book -- or read the story aloud? As your child is exposed to these traditional stories, you will want to take the time to explain the lessons in them. Without this guidance you may be unknowingly confusing the child. A child can also become confused when the villains in the story are likeable people who do evil.
Visible heroes today may be a bit harder to find and less dramatic, which is all the more reason to help your children start with the clear cut fictional heroes and then gradually transfer those learned ideals to the real world around them. There is no better place for a child to start than well-selected stories and novels where the hero has ability and integrity -- somebody who accomplishes an important, positive job.
All children start life with the same empty brain cells. What the adults around them put into those minds determines the resulting personalities. Stories -- whether heard or read -- are some of the most fundamental influences on a child.
One writer whose books are highly suitable for all ages is Robert Heinlein. He uses a science fiction format to deliver important messages, and it is often easier for a child to receive and understand the message when the setting is entirely unfamiliar and the characters and events can therefore be seen more clearly. For an older child you might want to start with The Past Through Tomorrow a collection of his shorter stories. This lets the child break the reading into distinct units. For younger children look for Podkayne of Mars, Between Planets, or Have Spacesuit Will Travel.
If your child likes westerns, try some of the books by Louis Lamour.
For preschoolers, any Dr. Seuss books. They may not be obvious as sources of heroes from an adult viewpoint, but from a small child's viewpoint they have characters that are easy to remember.
For the whole family, try The Fire Hunter by Jim Kjelgaard or Girl Who Owned a City by O. T. Nelson. And Heinlein's The Rolling Stones or Farmer in the Sky. Both are strong family books about future pioneers who have to solve problems for themselves. These heroes had to make themselves intelligent and capable to make a new, better life for themselves.
Don't dismiss heroes just because they are fictional. The power of creative imagination is one that is critically important to develop in children. When they learn to imagine with confidence and pleasure things they can't actually see, it is the first step towards conceptualization and abstract thinking -- important skills for handling adult challenges.
About the Author
Adam Starchild is the author of over a dozen books, and hundreds of magazine articles, primarily on business and finance.