Helping Children Become Everyday Heroes

Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world. –Desmond Tutu

What is a hero? By definition, a hero is “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” How many heroes are there in the world? How many people demonstrate idealized courage, outstanding achievements, and noble qualities? However many, I think we need more. We need Everyday Heroes – people whose courage, achievements, and noble qualities shine through in their everyday interactions with others. For example, there are social phenomena, such as the bystander effect – i.e., the probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders – that take courage and thoughtfulness to overcome.

To be an Everyday Hero, a child needs to be able to identify their own emotional state, the emotional state of others, and take on the perspective of another individual’s emotional state… AND they must possess a sense of courage and morality that will drive them to act on their empathy skills. This is where the idea of social phenomena comes in. As previously mentioned, there are phenomena such as the bystander effect that prevents people from coming to the aid of others. Additionally, there are other studies such as the Milgram studies and Stanford Prison Experiment that demonstrate how social influences can override an individual’s moral code and promote conformity to perceived social expectations, even when those social expectations compromise the well-being of others.

How do we create Everyday Heroes? Parents, teachers, coaches, care providers, etc. can help foster these qualities at a young age and encourage children to begin expressing them on a daily basis.

Acknowledge and address your child’s needs.

When children’s emotional states are identified and their needs met, they are more likely to develop a sense of empathy. Additionally, having their needs met promotes a secure attachment in the parent-child relationship, which in turn provides stability and support, and allows children to show empathy to other children who may be suffering.

Be mindful of your child’s physical needs. Responding to physical needs sets the stage for a secure attachment and promotes a sense of safety for the child.

When interacting with your child, reflect their emotional state back to them, beginning at a young age. For example, if your child is laughing, reflect back, “You are happy playing with that teddy bear.” If you child is frustrated, “You are feeling frustrated because you are having a hard time finishing this puzzle.”

Teach your child the facial expressions and body language that accompany different emotional states. While reading, you can ask your child how he or she knows a particular character is happy, sad, or mad. You can also ask you child to demonstrate with his or her own facial expression and body language different emotional states. Children learn through play, so incorporating emotional identification into play will aid in learning.

Model the empathic, courageous, noble behavior you want your child to demonstrate.

Just as children learn behaviors such as household chores and playing games from watching and modeling their parent’s behavior, they learn empathy from watching their parents and other adults demonstrate empathy for others, including for the child. Children observe how the adults they are around treat others.

Be mindful of how you are treating not only your child and family members, but also others in the community such as a store clerk, police officer, or fellow pedestrian.

Find ways to teach your child about empathy. For example, if you are reading a book or watching a television show where a character has been compromised or victimized, engage your child in discussion about what feelings the character may be experiencing. For example, “Joey is all alone today because he wasn’t invited to the baseball game with all of his other friends. How do you think Joey feels?”

Have your child imagine a character who is experiencing a particular emotional state, and have him or her act out, especially in facial expressions and body language, how that character might be feeling. Research shows that engaging in behaviors that emulate a particular emotional state allows the individual to more accurately experience the emotion. This will help your child take on the possible emotional perspective of another individual and thus enhance their ability for developing empathy.

Promote moral development.

A child’s moral development is fostered by witnessing behavior modeled by adults and by learning the necessity of rules.

Promote a sense of internal self-control when it comes to responding to the needs of others. Children should not be rewarded for helping or caring for others. Research suggests children are less likely to help others in future situations when their behavior has been previously materially rewarded. Instead, praise helping behaviors verbally.

Discuss the importance of rules and how individuals are impacted when they, and others, do and do not follow rules.

When your child witnesses or is involved in an event where another person’s wellbeing is compromised, address the needs, physical and emotional, of the compromised individual first to highlight the importance of ensuring someone’s safety and wellbeing.

Teaching children about feelings and promoting development of empathy and morality will prepare future generations to stand up for and identify the physical and emotional needs of others, despite social phenomena that may normally stifle someone’s internal drive to do so. Your child will experience pride, self-esteem, and connection to community by learning the skills to be an Everyday Hero.