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What is heroism?
Heroic behaviors are universally admired, but are all
admirable acts heroic? Consider each of the following examples.
||A famous basketball player whose natural talent
combined with practice and good coaching has propelled him to
stardom in the NBA. Is this accomplishment heroic?
||A young cadet studying to be a police
officer in a major metropolitan city joins a conversation with
other cadets during a class break. When they begin making racist
comments about one of the cadets in their class, he tells the
group their comments are unfair and improper. He turns and leaves.
Later, he calls his father to discuss what happened. He is worried:
Did his action put him at risk? What if he gets in trouble on
the street, puts in a call for help, and someone in that group
is in a position to assist? They might not rush to his aid.
Even so, he does not regret what he did. Was his confrontation
||An extremely wealthy philanthropist donates to
a worthy charity. Is this a heroic act?
||A 3-year-old wakes up in the middle of the night
from a nightmare. He calms his beating heart and reassures himself
that he is okay. After a short time, he falls asleep. Is this
||A woman takes leave from her job
to care for her mother who is dying from cancer. For two months,
she drives 120 miles a day to be with her at the hospital then
brings her back home. After six months, she loses her job permanently.
Eighteen months later, her mother dies in her care, a full two
years following the original detection of cancer. Does the caregiver's
behavior illustrate heroism?
Heroic behavior is finding the courage to take a significant
risk or make a great sacrifice to achieve a noble goal. Heroism
always involves a significant real or potential cost to the heroic
person. Do all the above examples meet this standard? Our definition
suggests five sets of skills that contribute to heroic behavior:
(1) awareness of the adversity, the danger or the threat to oneself
or others; (2) caring about oneself and the lives of others; (3)
making a smart decision about how to respond; (4) finding the strength
to endure the sacrifice or manage the fear of risk; and (5) committing
oneself fully to achieving a noble goal.
There is no strict textbook or professional definition of hero.
We believe, however, that those who have made the sacrifice or taken
the risk to "do the right thing" deserve to be honored
by our careful use of the word hero.
The word "courage" is taken from the Latin
cor (heart) and age (action). Heroes put their hearts into action
when frightened. Courage is inner strength. When I ask young people
to define courage, they usually say something like, "Courage
is not being afraid." This association of fearlessness with
courage is unfortunate. Courage can coexist with fear, grief, or
any strong emotion that might prevent us from taking a noble action.
is the role of strong emotions, especially fear, in heroism?
All truly heroic behavior has an element of fear or any
strong, disruptive emotion. This emotion is evidence that the actor
knows the real or potential cost of the action. The firefighters
who rushed up the steps in the World Trade Center must have been
afraid. Their hearts must have been beating fast from more than
the physical exertion. Yet up the steps they went. Heroes recognize
risk, 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.
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.
is do you mean by everyday heroism?
Everyday heroism is what we all do when we face a risk,
refuse the instruction to run away, and act to achieve something
more important than safety. 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 an everyday
heroism. So does a parent who wakes up every night to care for a
child with a chronic, life-threatening disease. True heroism is
often built systematically, one small act of courage after another.
The pressure to give up, pull back, and flee from the risk and potential
or real sacrifice can feel overwhelming. 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.
does cowardice mean?
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.
Cowardice is avoiding responsible action because of fear. When
taking no action is the smart and right thing to do given the circumstances,
that choice is not cowardice. Heroism and courage has to be smart,
using intelligence fueled by fear.
Heroism is special because it overrides natural impulses for self-protection.
In some cases, the desire to retreat can be so strong that courage
becomes overwhelmed. Sometimes the retreat is the smart thing to
do. Sometimes, because of fatigue and confusion, we might listen
to our feet more than our conscience. To call someone a "coward"
is a terrible thing to do, though, because the word defines a more
permanent state, not a temporary weakness, in the very core of the
person. Accusing someone of being a coward is destructive
because it implies that the fearful action defines the person and
puts courage outside of his or her reach. Our greatest concern should
be reserved for those children and adults whose lives are ruled
what age does heroism begin?
Heroism begins at the first moment of courage, the first
time a child consciously resists being motivated by fear and attempts
instead to "do what he or she knows is right." Infants
can learn to calm themselves when they are upset. Given the right
experience with loved ones, they can begin to modify their own brain
chemistry. At three years of age, children begin to grasp the idea
that certain courses of action are better than others. They may
learn that their behavior is the result of a choice on their part.
Not until late grade school do children begin to take into account
that courage and heroism can have real, unpleasant costs, some of
them possibly permanent. The youngest award winner for the Carnegie
Hero Award was seven years old.
do you mean by "honorable" or "noble" action?
Imagine someone who knows the realities of the world
and remains thoroughly decent, authentically kind person. Imagine
that this person is someone who truly cares about you as a human
being. Now imagine making a choice to act in response to a risk,
threat, or danger in your life. Let's say this person saw your action.
Would this decent, kind person who cares about you be proud of what
you did? Accepting? Or disapproving? Imagine the expression on this
person's face and what this person might say to you. This is the
"test of honor." Heroism will always pass this test. A
noble goal is one that would earn the respect of kind and honorable
there risks to heroism?
What makes heroic behavior admirable is the decision
to face the risks posed by the threat or danger. Stand up to speak
in a group and one's opinions might be ridiculed. Stand up to a
bully, and your nose might be punched. There can be no guarantees.
There are costs for always choosing safety, to remain quiet when
an unfair decision is being made or when a classmate is being bullied.
The failure to act in response to cruelty, unfairness, or indifference
Helping children make good risk management judgments is extremely
important. 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 to 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 blinding emotion.
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
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
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
Chris met the 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 on a plane
can be heroic if we have a crippling fear of flying.
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.
are the goals of The Ring of Valor website?
The Ring of Valor website has two goals: to provide
general information to the public and to provide resources targeted
to parents, teachers, and other caregivers of 10-12-year-old children.
Although individual parents are welcome to participate, we are especially
interested in reaching groups of children through their teachers,
after-school caregivers, 4H project leaders, Boys Club leaders,
and others who work with our targeted age group.
the program research based?
The program design is based on sound research discoveries
related to human behavior as well as the neurophysiology of emotion.
We hope to obtain feedback from
program participants to obtain their opinions of program effectiveness.
does the program consist of?
We focus on five critical elements in heroism. Each element
in The Ring of Valor uses an animal metaphor to help reinforce
the principles of courage.
The Owl represents awareness of
a risk to oneself or others. Heroism and courage begins with
being aware of one's surroundings and noticing the risk.
The Dog represents caring about
oneself and the lives of others. Research on rescuers of Jews
during WWII and the Carnegie Hero Award winners revealed that these
heroes valued all life without reservation. Heroic behavior is evidence
of deep and profound caring.
The Fox represents intelligence--making
a smart decision about how to respond. Heroes think despite
stress. To advocate courage and heroism without intelligence and
caution is irresponsible. Risk management involves at least two
steps. Even in emergencies, we have to first make a risk assessment.
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 potential costs? How
can the risk be managed? Following risk assessment, we have to evaluate
our personal resources. Can we do what is necessary to respond
effectively? Is there a real chance for success? 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. So
in The Ring of Valor we encourage children to "Be an
Everyday Hero With a Smart Heart."
The Bear represents finding
the strength to control fear and other strong emotions. Strength
refers to the capacity of a person to summon the courage to learn
from fear, grief, and other intense emotions and then quiet the
impulse to flee. Courage is an expression of a person's free will.
The Ram represents committing
oneself fully to honorable action. Thinking and feeling are
critical but have to be expressed in action. The first four elements
take place within us. The real test of heroism is putting what we
know and feel into action.
We use animals to represent the elements of heroism because they
are familiar and are easier to remember than abstract comments.
See the Animals as metaphors
page in the Description section for more information.
Included in The Ring of Valor website are resources for
teachers, parents, and other caregivers to use with 10-12-year-olds
the word "hero" a male referent?
Historically, the words "hero" and "heroine"
have been used to refer to male and female individuals. We use one
word, hero, to refer to all individuals who have displayed heroic
behavior. The word "heroine" as a referent to a female
courage is dropping out of our discourse because, in part, because
of the word's other meaning. In addition, using two different words
would be very awkward from a literary viewpoint. More importantly,
such a division could be viewed as an endorsement of traditional
sexist emphasis. The men and women who lost their lives in the effort
to help others on 9-11 and the men and women who have won the Carnegie
Hero Medal are all heroes.
this program character education?
True character is often a test of character. The Ring of Valor approach is an excellent way of focusing on character.
Because of the tension between opposing emotions, there is drama
in the choice to act heroically. Schools provide critical opportunities
to bring children and youth together in a social arena to test and
explore the meaning of character, courage, and heroism. Parents
should be involved, though, because their influence is more powerful
than that of teachers.
The Ring of Valor program can be integrated into many different
segments of the school curriculum. Literature, history, and social
sciences could be devoted to studying heroism.
the program too difficult?
The age group of 10-12-year-olds is approaching the shift
from what Piaget called concrete operations to formal operational
thought. Some abstract thoughts, like noble, can be difficult to
grasp unless associated with familiar examples. I believe this age
range is a "teachable moment" for courage and heroism.
The risks and dangers children face are starting to become more
significant and they need to begin learning the tools for facing
them and supporting their peers. Not all children during this age
range will grasp the concepts we introduce in The Ring of Valor.
Much depends on the way the teacher or parent involves children
Everyday Hero materials could certainly be used with older
children. Younger children could also be introduced to many of the
ideas with some revision. If you have any experiences related to
introducing these resources to children, I would certainly like
to hear from you.
does the program cost?
The only cost to you is a small shipping charge if you
want to receive the buttons to give out to your children. Everything
you need is on the website. You may make copies of any page as long
as the printout is made directly from your web browser and includes
a header or footer with the web address of the page. You might also
note that there are no ad pages anywhere on this university site.
Enrolling with us will enable us to
better understand how many parents and teachers we are reaching
with this material. We would also greatly appreciate program user's
evaluation of their experiences.
books can I read about courage?
Elizabeth Berger, Raising Children with Character: Parents, Trust,
and the Development of Personal Integrity (Northvale, NJ: Jason
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,
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
Charles A. Smith, Mighty Hearts: The Origins of Everyday Heroism
in Children (forthcoming).
Benjamin B. Wolman, Children's Fears (New York: Grosset and