This past Halloween I watched as a parade of fairies, princesses, kitty cats and iCarly-lookalikes pranced by my front window. And then came my daughter. Dressed in camouflage fatigues and desert boots, a smudge of charcoal under each face, my girl looked every bit the soldier. But when she ran up to me and told me she wanted to protect me, I suddenly remembered the intention of her costume: My nine-year-old wanted to be a hero.
I had to laugh. As a child I adored Superman, the Bionic Woman, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music" and TV doctors like Marcus Welby. And as disparate as these idols may seem to some, to me they were all profoundly connected. In my mind, all of these folks were heroes — people helping other people.
My daughter and I have had so many conversations about heroes. I tell her that I look up to those who teach me about courage, about standing up for the weak, about giving voice to the voiceless. A hero shows me a better way to live my own life and inspires me to push myself beyond my boundaries, to open my heart to those who may be nothing like me, and to offer my help whenever I can.
We talk often about the people in our lives that we admire. When I think heroes, one of my first thoughts is of Christopher Reeve. Here was a man who had been stripped of almost everything: as so much of America knows, this world-famous actor suffered a horseback-riding accident in 1995 that injured his spinal cord and caused him to be paralyzed from the neck down. And yet even after this twist of fate, his brilliant and generous mind continued to work overtime. He was still every bit Superman. In fact, you could say that in his own way, he developed x-ray vision into the future. He spoke out and rallied for stem-cell research in the hope that scientists would then be able to find cures for paralysis and other life-altering conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Christopher didn’t just accept his terrible injury; he was reinvented by it. He transformed his celebrity and accident into a crusade that brought hope to millions of lives. He found the hero within him, and that hero was even greater than any Superman could ever be.
His wife, my dear friend Dana, didn’t just stand by her man; she became one with him. After Chris died of heart failure in 2004, Dana took over the foundation that they had created, and she devoted the rest of her life (she died of lung cancer in 2006) to developing programs that would enhance the quality of life of people living with paralysis. Was Dana a hero? Many, many times over. To me and everyone who knew her, she was an angel who moved among us on earth.
ABC journalist Bob Woodruff was reporting in Iraq when an explosive device sent shrapnel in to his brain; after the attack, Bob fell into a coma. When he woke up 35 days later, this die-hard journalist, who was known to read nine newspapers every morning, discovered that he had to learn to speak English again. He had suffered a traumatic brain injury, and for two years he labored to recover his life. But he never once showed any signs of bitterness or despair. His wife Lee has often said that after the accident, Bob "wakes up every day loving everyone and just grateful to be alive." Does he ever ask God, "Why me?" No, he doesn’t. Instead he asks God, "Why not me?"
Five years after Bob’s near-death experience (to this day, he is still trying to pop small pieces of rock from the bomb out of his skin), Lee wrote a memoir, "In An Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing." I am forever touched by how this couple faced their personal crisis with such resilience and love for each other and for the world; they inspire me in profound ways.
Did Lee and Bob find the heroes within themselves? Yes, and their story can show all of us how to rise above our own adversity and become the best people we can be.
I always say to my daughter that for me, heroes aren’t just the people we read about in history books or gaze at as they wave from a shiny convertible in the New Year’s parade. My father is my hero for having made it through a boyhood of total poverty; he was a first-generation Italian boy who had to learn English and build himself from sand. He did it, and he kept his humor. My mother is my hero for conquering every situation with her otherworldly patience, and for rebuilding herself from scratch when her midlife divorce left her scrambling to make a living. My brother is my hero for mentoring and coaching children for little or no pay.
This past Veteran’s Day, I thought about the men and women who fight to keep our country safe. They face gunfire and bombs while we head to our offices, watch our children’s soccer games and walk through our flower-lined parks. To me, each one of them is a hero.
When my daughter and I talk about the people we think of as heroes, I notice that her lovely brown eyes begin the shine. She revels in the idea of helping people and caring for animals. Her learning about heroes has made that her aspiration. If she sees a wounded bird, she wants to nurse it back to health. Whenever an elderly friend of ours comes to visit our house, my daughter always walks her back to her car and makes sure she is safely buckled up. When my girl dressed up as a soldier for Halloween, she told me she did so because she wanted to protect other people. My daughter is my live-in hero for sure.
I have witnessed first-hand how vital heroes are to our children’s lives. For my little girl, they encourage her to dream about the person she hopes to be someday. They also remind her of the compassionate, loving hero she already is right now.
Here’s how you can inspire your child to find the hero within:
1) Talk About Your Heroes
The people I have always looked up to are those willing to put themselves out on the line to help others. As a little girl, Jeanne Meyers, the co-founder of MyHero.com, a website designed to help young people realize their own potential to effect positive change in the world, "loved determined leading ladies who faced challenges with courage and kindness and a little bit of magic." She says, "The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy and Mary Poppins gave me and my friends strong-willed female role models." Talking about your icons of courage with your children is a way of sharing your dreams and giving them insight into who you were growing up. It’s also a lovely way to communicate to your kids that they can have big dreams about who they want to be, too. I have so enjoyed talking about this over my Facebook and Twitter platforms, as it has been a wonderful journey for me to hear from everyone on this topic. I love learning about how others introduce this inspiring discussion with our youth.
2) Don’t Judge Who They Choose As Heroes
So maybe we’d prefer our daughter to admire Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi over Miley Cyrus. But try not to show your disappointment and celebrate the positive aspects of her choice instead. For example, you can point out that "Miley has certainly worked hard to become such a successful star — that kind of commitment is what it takes to reach her level of accomplishment."
3) Show That Heroes Are Human
Even those who act in courageous ways don’t always do everything perfectly. Sometimes they fail; sometimes they make poorly informed decisions. This is something that’s essential for kids to understand. "Children should know that heroes are also fallible people," says Pat Harned, the president of the Ethics Resource Center. "The more we talk about our heroes, the more we not only see the traits that are good, but we can also learn about how to handle challenges, too."
4) Praise Your Child When He Acts Heroically
If he stands up for his friend against a playground bully, tell him you’re proud of the courage he showed and the example he set for all his friends. You can also connect his positive actions to a hero you admire. "That’s the kind of courage Mahatma Gandhi might have shown," you could say. Or, "Rosa Parks stood up for people, too, by refusing to give up her seat at the front of the bus." By aligning your child with heroes we all admire, you give him the vision and support to become the greatest person he can be — and to find the hero within. Please share with me some of the heroic acts of your child.
Cristina Carlino is a mother, poet and the founder and creator of philosophy skincare, on of the most beloved brands in cosmetic history. Carlino is currently working on Project Miracle, a grassroots social network connecting miracle-makers to the miraculous. Be an angel and make a miracle. To learn more, join Cristina at Facebook.com/CristinaCarlino.
PHOTO (cc): Flickr / j.coppolo