04/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How to Raise a Hero

When I was little, I pretended to be Wonder Woman, my brother was Spiderman, and together we would save the world.

It's exhilarating to be seven-years-old and convinced of your awesome power to help people. I want my kids to feel the same rush that comes from seeing themselves as heroes.

But I also want more for them: I want them to actually BE heroes themselves, in their real life. The schoolyard needs them.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, every single day 60,000 students avoid going to school because they are afraid they are going to be bullied. Even more shocking is that their fear might be justified: 25 percent of public schools report that bullying occurs among students on a daily or weekly basis.

How to Raise a Hero Rather Than a Bystander

BYSTANDERS stand by and watch while other kids are bullied. HEROES don't let bullying happen: they intervene, get help. They are out to save the world, one kid at a time.

Bystanders watch while evil takes root but are too frightened, or apathetic, to take a stand. All grown up, bystanders did nothing while US soldiers abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Bystanders are that silent majority that makes meanness somehow acceptable, even commonplace.

Heroes, on the other hand, have two key qualities, according to heroism researchers Philip Zimbardo and Zeno Franco. First, they live out their values and their beliefs. They defend TRUTH with a capital T. Second, they incur some personal risk to do so.

Most kids, and probably their parents, too, fear the consequences of standing up to a childhood bully. What if the bully turns his wrath on our child? Acting heroically might mean that our children stand a chance of social, emotional, and physical harm.

Assuming that the situation isn't out of Lord of the Flies (i.e., there are adults in charge somewhere, even if they are a bit asleep at the wheel), I would prefer my kids take those risks rather than become bystanders. Here's how we can make it more likely we raise heroes than bystanders:

  1. Foster their Heroic Imaginations. In this Greater Good article, Zimbardo and Franco argue that in order to act more heroically, we need to learn to think like heroes, and we should start from the time we're young. We need to get kids to consider how it is that heroes see the world.

    For starters, heroes have a strong awareness of things that aren't right. They pick up on the cues that suggest someone might be in trouble—or headed that way. With those skills, kids can learn to avert danger before it occurs. For example, an emotionally intelligent child might predict when a vulnerable classmate is likely to be bullied and prevent the incident from happening, rather than trying to intercede when it does.

  2. Teach kids they have the power to resolve a conflict. Conflict is not a bad thing unless we don't have the skills we need to resolve it (check out these postings on teaching kids skills for conflict resolution). In order to act heroically, kids need to have enough confidence in their interpersonal skills that they can stand up for what they believe in. Teaching positive conflict resolution, grit and the growth mindset can really help with this.
  3. Model care and empathy towards others, while downplaying the importance of achievement outcomes. Research shows that people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust did not tend to be achievement-oriented or concerned about other people's approval. Instead, they were found to have a heightened "capacity for extensive relationships," and a "stronger sense of attachment to others and their feelings of responsibility for the welfare of others," reports Samuel and Pearl Oliner, who led a landmark study of heroes in Nazi Europe. The Oliners say that those feelings of responsibility for others had often been instilled in rescuers from the time they were children, and that their parents tended to display more tolerance, care, and empathy toward both their children and towards people different than themselves.
  4. Express the expectation that kids will act heroically. Research shows that kids report they are more likely to intervene when a schoolmate is being bullied if they believe that their parents and friends expect them to act to support victims.

I want my kids to be happy and safe, of course, but I also want them to be heroes. I don't think this is a delusion of grandeur; I think it's necessary, and the time is right to nurture a new generation of heroes.

Do your kids know what heroes are? Do you want your kids to act heroically, even if it involves some risk?

If you want to learn more about how to bring out the hero in your kids—and yourself—check out the Greater Good Science Center event, "Goodness, Evil, and Everyday Heroism," featuring a presentation by Philip Zimbardo. February 26th at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, an interdisciplinary research unit that studies the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills for a thriving, resilient and compassionate society. Best known for her science-based parenting advice, Dr. Carter follows the scientific literature to understand ways that we can teach children skills for happiness, emotional intelligence, and resilience. She is the author of the new book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. Dr. Carter has a private consulting practice helping families and schools structure children's lives for happiness, and she lives near San Francisco with her family.


Zimbardo, Philip and Zeno Franco (2006), "The Banality of Heroism"

Oliner, Samuel P. and Pearl M. Oliner (1988)The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, New York: Free Press.

Rigby, Ken and Johnson, Bruce. "Expressed readiness of Australian schoolchildren to act as bystanders of children who are being bullied." Education Psychology. Vol 26(3), June 2006, pp. 425-440.