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When heroes disappoint our kids

By Shawn Bean, Parenting
updated 9:52 AM EST, Wed November 14, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • When heroes make mistakes, children can be profoundly affected by their fall
  • Validate your child's emotions. If they say they're sad, say you are, too
  • By discussing the heroes your child worships, you can teach that we're all human

(CNN) -- Two weeks ago, my neighborhood was overrun with heroes. Buzz Lightyear came to my door and took a handful of Butterfingers. Across the street, the repulsors on Iron Man's hands glowed like Bunsen burners. The Incredible Hulk skipped down the sidewalk alongside Batman. Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz traveled in a group with an astronaut and an Army soldier.

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I bet some of our real-life heroes wish they could take off the costumes at the end of the night and just be anonymous. But they can't. Heroes make mistakes—big, huge, press-released mistakes—and our children can be the ones most affected by their fall.

In the past few months, a number of faces familiar to today's youth have faltered. Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. Olympic gold medalist Shaun White, my 8-year-old son's favorite person, pled guilty to drunkenly vandalizing a hotel in Nashville. I don't have the time or word count to include Tiger Woods or Marion Jones or Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds.

Most recently, Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind Elmo, was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a minor. Clash denied the allegation -- and his accuser quickly recanted. But the speculation put Elmo's furry face on the front page nonetheless.

How is a parent supposed to talk to their child about such things? When they come home asking what doping is, or why Shaun White is sporting a black eye on the local news, how do you rectify that with the poster over their bed or the yellow bracelet on their wrist?

"At a minimum, validate the emotions of the child," says Paul Coleman, a psychologist in Wappingers Falls, New York, and author of "How To Say It To Your Child When Bad Things Happen." "If they say they're sad or worried, say 'Yeah, I am too.'"

And be honest with your responses. "Sometimes 'I don't know' is a good answer, because it might be true."

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But a hero's misstep can create an opportunity, says Dana Dorfman, a psychotherapist and family counselor in New York City. "For a school-age child, this can be a springboard for a valuable discussion," she says.

"Start by asking them questions. Why do you think this happened? What would make them act that way? Nothing thrills a child more than being asked their opinion. Showing that you value how they perceive things is important."

From there, personalize it. "Connect it to your child," says Dorfman. "Say, 'Remember when you and your buddy were throwing snowballs and broke that window?' Your child already projects these idealized attributes onto their heroes. This gives them the opportunity to identify with them. They learn that we're all human, and we all make mistakes. But they also see that there are ramifications for all of us when we make mistakes, even heroes."

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Parents should make no effort to choose or edit the personalities our offspring want on their lunchboxes and T-shirts. "Hero worship is a developmental inevitability," Dorfman explains. "Once kids reach a certain age, they learn that their parents are not the end-all-be-all, and other heroes—both real and fictional—begin to show up."

Sometimes your kid's hero will be a bad guy. (Mine always were. My favorite character in G.I. Joe? Cobra Commander. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe? Skeletor. Care Bears? Grumpy Bear.)

But that's not necessarily a bad thing. In 2005, California State University, Los Angeles, conducted a survey about the appeal of movie monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, Freddie Kruger, Mike Myers, et al). It found that superhuman strength and intelligence—both potentially productive qualities—were the top traits we like in our bad guys.

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"Talk to your kids about their heroes," says Dorfman. "Ask them, 'What do you like about them?' or 'What qualities do you admire?' If you want to know your child better, understanding why they admire their heroes is a great start."

Now that all the heroes have left my neighborhood, my two sons are left with mortal ol' me. And they have seen me falter. They've seen me go from G-rated to F-bomb. I will do my best to be their hero, with the understanding that at some point, I may be passing the baton to Optimus Prime.

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