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Description: What is an Everyday Hero?

This draft is a slightly expanded version of a "FACS Annual Lesson" to be published by Kansas State Univesity in 2002.

What makes a person a "hero"? For some, a hero is a person who has achieved great fame. For example, a teenager might consider Michael Jordan, the great basketball player, a hero. For others, a hero is a person who has performed a great service to others. Mother Theresa might be considered a hero because of her lifetime of devotion to the poor in India. We typically view heroes as someone other than ourselves, someone in the headlines who stands outside the circle that includes the rest of us.

Defining heroism
The "pedestal" view of heroism is shortsighted. True heroism can be a part of every person's life. We can all become everyday heroes. The word "courage" is taken from the Latin cor (heart) and age (action). Heroes put their hearts into action when faced with danger. Research shows that four elements are required for courage and heroism.

First, heroes recognize danger, feel afraid, and manage their fear. Fear is a natural, healthy response to a threat. Fear is a good emotion. It warns us of danger and enables us to protect ourselves more effectively. Courage and fear can exist simultaneously. The most important battleground is in the hero's heart and mind. Fear urges the feet to flee while courage appeals to standing firm. It is within us that courage is won or lost.

A three-year-old who wakes up in the middle of the night in the dark with her heart racing and then manages to calm her fears and returns to sleep demonstrates heroism. In doing so, she shares the same fundamental element of courage demonstrated by the firefighters and police officers who climbed up the steps of the World Trade Center on 9-11 while thousands of citizens passed them on their way down to safety. What they have in common is the management of fear.

There is a battlefield saying that the only difference between a hero and a fool is fear. The hero feels fear, and acts anyway. The fool simply acts. A heroic act is one taken in spite of fear, not in ignorance of it. Fear also provides us with the biochemical juice - adrenaline - that makes it possible to perform extraordinary physical feats normally outside of the range of our ability. Fear can counsel us, if we listen without making it the master of our action. Fear is not the enemy. Listening to fear can help us make good decisions. People who act courageously move forward to a worthy goal despite the fear. Good firefighters feel afraid. Controlled, the fear can help them stay as safe as possible. Yes, their hearts are beating fast, and their blood pressure is up. Instead of running away, though, they use fear to provide the energy and strength that enables them to perform at a higher level. Courage is not the absence of fear but the controlled use of fear.

Not all dangers requiring courage to surmount are associated with the threat of death or injury. Some threats are psychological and affect the quality of life. Speaking up for one's beliefs despite criticism or ridicule from others can be heroic. Every day, many parents make great sacrifices for their children. For example, a father might face his employer's anger by refusing to move his family to another city. Other parents have to overcome self-doubt and discouragement to set and maintain reasonable limits for their children. Parents of very sick children have to provide consistent, loving care. The pressure to give up, pull back, and flee from the challenge can be oppressive. Yet these and other heroic parents carry on. They will never see their pictures in the paper or on posters, but their courage serves as an inspiration to those who know them.

Children learn about courage, bravery, and valor by facing fear. The struggle between doing what is right and taking flight is one that every person faces early in life. Once a person gives into fear and chooses the cowardly act to avoid risk, then that same choice is likely to be repeated the next time danger approaches. Choices based on fear can create a momentum that continues to build until a person wakes up one morning to discover that fear rules his or her life. The trajectory of courage and heroism is established in the first six years of life.

Second, heroes value all life without reservation. Heroic behavior is evidence of caring for both oneself and others. Michael Benfante, 36, and John Cerqueira, 22, brought a disabled woman in a wheelchair down 68 floors in the World Trade stairwell just before the building collapsed. At any moment, the exhausted duo could have abandoned the desperate woman. Cerqueira later said, "In the back of my head I could hear my mother telling me to get the heck out of there. But I had to help." It is fortunate for the woman in the wheelchair that Cerqueira listened to his conscience instead. The woman was a complete stranger to the two men. Her sex, race, and age made no difference to them. They helped because she could not have managed on her own.

Third, heroes think despite the stress. When facing danger, two elements of risk management must occur. Even in emergencies, we have to first evaluate the threat. For example, we see a woman being robbed at night while walking along a city street. Does the man have a weapon? How isolated is the event? If we get involved, what are the risks? How can the threat be overcome? Following threat assessment, we have to evaluate personal resources. Can we do what is necessary to respond effectively? Is there a real chance for success?

The application of courage without mindfulness is dangerous. We can encourage children to be courageous for their age. However, we must also emphasize the importance of thinking about the situation before responding. In an emergency, this thinking can take place in mere seconds. When I conduct school visits with children about courage, I emphasize they can learn to have a "smart heart."

On February 25, 1999, a fierce blizzard struck Norton Massachusetts. Corey Anderson, 9 years old, was worried about Jasmine, his golden retriever mix, who had strayed from home. Corey was very close to his dog, who slept faithfully at the foot of his bed every night. Corey was worried. So he put on a Boston Bruins jacket, sweat pants, a ski mask and his mother's fur-lined boots and darted out the door in a swirl of snow to find Jasmine. Three days later searchers found Corey 400 yards from his home, dead from hypothermia.

Corey's heart had raced ahead of his mind and good judgment. Nine years old was too young to think through all aspects of the risks involved. Adults have to do more than just protect children, though. Corey needed an adult who could help him think through the circumstances. Children need grownups to help them learn to think despite strong emotions. The odds that Jasmine could protect herself from the elements were much greater than those for a young boy. Corey should never have gone out into that blizzard. Remaining in his home would not have been a retreat based on fear. It would have been the smart but more difficult action to take. Sometimes the most heroic action is to not allow oneself to be driven by emotion.

The opposite of courage is not fear but cowardice. Another battlefield insight states that the difference between a hero and a coward is one step sideways. They are both afraid-but the hero acts meaningfully while the coward runs. When faced with a reasonable opportunity to confront a danger successfully, the coward takes panicked flight. Yet, if real hope does not exist, the most reasonable choice might be to suspend heroism. Fleeing from a mugger who has a gun is not cowardice. Confronting this aggressor when an avenue of escape exists may be more an act of bravado than heroism, unless we do so on behalf of another.

Fourth, heroes endure the cost of sacrifice. A single mother loses sleep, leisure time, and personal comfort to work long hours at a difficult job to bring home a paycheck to support her family. A father is faced with a constant struggle of heartbreak in caring for his terminally ill child. A police officer risks his safety to help a battered woman escape from her dangerous spouse. An elementary school child stands up to a bully to stop him from hurting a classmate. Courage always has real and potential costs. Heroism is not free. It has to be purchased. For example, a child who admits to a wrongdoing knows that her honesty will lead to unpleasant consequences. Accepting accountability often takes courage and is a demonstration of everyday heroism.

On July 20, 2001, 12-year-old Chris Wright and his father were enjoying a swim in a remote part of the Chowchilla River outside of Fresno, California. The father slipped on a wet rock, smashing his nose. Chris left the water to find some tissues. When he returned, he saw his father lying in the water shaking uncontrollably. "His teeth were clenched; he was foaming at the mouth," Chris recalls. "I was scared. I didn't know what to do." His panic was only momentary.

There was a house about 100 yards away, but no one responded to his calls. So he knew it was up to him to get his father, who appeared to be slipping in and out of consciousness, out of the rocky ravine. The 120-lb. seventh grader grabbed his 185 lb. father under the arms and dragged him up the steep embankment. Then he managed to lift him into their pickup. As his father faded in and out of consciousness, Chris took the steering wheel of the truck and drove 15 miles to the rural house of his uncle. After arriving at the hospital, his father was diagnosed with epilepsy. After hearing compliments, Chris responded, "Any kid would have done the same thing. I love my dad." When he woke up in a hospital bed his father recalled, "I woke up, and there Chris was on the bed next to me. He wouldn't leave."

Chris met the four requirements for being an everyday hero. He knew that his father's life was at risk. He was afraid. He felt a strong conviction of caring that obliged him to help his father. He managed his fear to think about the circumstances and then take decisive, thoughtful action. He did not panic. He endured through the difficulty. Exceptional circumstances revealed the strength within Chris's heart. Smaller, more quiet acts of courage take place much more frequently. A young child going to a dark basement to retrieve a toy can be heroic if the child is terrified of the dark. Getting a plane can be heroic if we have a crippling fear of flying.

Courage is an action that overcomes flight as a natural response to fear. Heroism is extraordinary because on the physiological level it is unnatural. We want to run, or climb down, or hide to protect ourselves. Instead, we listen to another voice that urges us onward despite our thumping heart, sweaty palms, and rapid breathing. We use our strength of will, our power, to act because we believe that it is the right thing to do even though fear's alarm bell rings loudly. Courage, therefore, challenges us to control the physical aspect of fear. The child climbing to the top of the slide sees the parent at the bottom with arms outstretched and hears her encouraging words. Therefore, he continues climbing. His heart may be pounding like a snare drum and his knees as wobbly as Jell-O, but he climbs on.

The Making of Heroes
Heroes are made, not born. How do we nurture heroism in children?

Provide children with a stable base of protection. Children need to grow up in a home in which they feel protected by caring adults. Learning courage begins with feeling safe. Although courage grows outside of the shelter we provide, having a secure base provides a source of psychological strength.

Build confidence a step at a time. The key to building self-confidence, a form of simple courage, is introducing what behavioral psychologists call "successive approximations." Instead of expecting children to face a huge fear all at once, they can experience opportunities to provide success with a small portion of the fear, one step at a time. One of the worst things we could do to a child who is frightened of the water, for example, is to throw him into a deep pool. Panic is a poor teacher. In addition, such an action is more likely to promote cruelty than courage.

Tell heroic stories. True and fictional stories of courage help children cope with their fears in at least three ways. First, they can show children that they are not alone with their fears. Second, stories provide opportunities for children to talk about fear and courage. After listening to Mercer Mayer's There's a Nightmare in My Closet, for example, a child and parent might talk about nightmares. Third, stories show characters who respond courageously to their fears.

Be an example of courage. How parents respond to fear provides a model for children to follow. The overwhelming majority (89%) of rescuers of Jews during WWII interviewed by Eva Fogelman had a parent or adult figure who acted as an altruistic role model. Nearly everyone she talked to mentioned a person who influenced his or her helping behavior. When stories of courage are matched by a parent's example, then the message becomes more powerful.

Make your expectations explicit. Children need a clear message from parents and other loved ones that they have the strength to face fear and help others. If another child is being bullied, for example, they have the responsibility to intervene.

Introduce basic risk management concepts. Risk management related to courage involves two complimentary evaluations: what is the danger and what am I capable of doing? Adults can engage children in this problem solving as they face danger. When a child is frightened of a dog, for example, a parent might say, " I can see you are afraid. Maybe you think this dog might hurt you. I know this dog and know he is safe to be near if you are kind to him." To a child who is frightened of going up a slide, a parent or teacher might say, "Yes, that's higher than what you have gone before. I can understand why you are afraid. I believe you can keep yourself safe, and I am here to help you if you need it." The key to risk assessment is to determine the nature of the danger and to choose a response that has the best chance for success.

Provide opportunities to practice the skills. Parents and teachers can provide opportunities for children to learn how to stand up for what they believe, how to protect themselves and others, learn how to respond when someone is in danger, and how to defend someone from harm.

Dag Hammarskjold, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, wrote, "Life only demands from you the strength you possess; only one feat is possible--not to have run away." The child who learns to confront a bully on the playground today displays a heroism we will all depend on when that child grows up to face difficult days to come. We need all the heroes we can find in an age that requires noble deeds.

Further Reading
Elizabeth Berger, Raising Children with Character: Parents, Trust, and the Development of Personal Integrity (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1999).
Kathleen A. Brehony, Ordinary Grace: An Examination of the Roots of Compassion, Altruism, and Empathy, and the Ordinary Individuals Who Help Others in Extraordinary Ways (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999).
Eva Fogelman, Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust (New York: Anchor Books, 1994).
Samual P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (New York: Free Press, 1988).
Edward P. Sarafino, The Fears of Childhood: A Guide to Recognizing and Reducing Fearful States in Children (New York: Human Sciences Press, 1986).
Charles A. Smith, The Birth of Courage: The Origins of Everyday Heroism in Children (forthcoming).
Benjamin B. Wolman, Children's Fears (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1978.)


http://www.ksu.edu/wwparent/programs/hero/hero-des-animals.htm--Revised January 29, 2002
Copyright © 1996-2002 Charles A. Smith. All rights reserved.