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Description: Q&A about The Ring of Valor (updated 3-4-02)
What is heroism?
What is courage?
What is the role of fear in heroism?
Does all fear involve an element of risk?
What do you mean by everyday heroism?
What does cowardice mean?
At what age does heroism begin?
What do you mean by "noble" action
Are there risks to heroism?
What are the goals of this website?
Is the program research based?
What does the program consist of?
Is the word "hero" a male referent?
Is this program character education?
Is the program too difficult?
What does the program cost?
What books can I read about courage?

If you need clarification or have additional questions not answered in this Q&A, contact me or go to our feedback page.

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 heroic?
  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 act heroic?
  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.go to the top

What is courage?
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. go to the top

What 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.go to the top

What 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.go to the top

What 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 by fear.go to the top

At 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.go to the top

What 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 people.go to the top

Are 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 erodes self-respect.

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 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 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.go to the top

What 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.go to the top

Is 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.go to the top

What 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-oldsgo to the top

Is 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.go to the top

Is 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.go to the top

Is 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 in discussion.

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.go to the top

What 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.go to the top

What books can I read about courage?
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, Mighty Hearts: The Origins of Everyday Heroism in Children (forthcoming).
Benjamin B. Wolman, Children's Fears (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1978).go to the top


maphttp://www.ksu.edu/wwparent/programs/hero/hero-des-animals.htm--Revised June 15, 2005
Copyright © 1996-2005 Charles A. Smith. All rights reserved.