Last month in Atlanta, Ms. Antoinette Tuff, a school clerk at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, talked down a 20-year-old man who walked in brandishing an AK-47 rifle with the intent of taking his own life and the lives of others at the school.
Ms. Tuff treated this potential killer with kindness and respect and was able to help him walk away from his death wish. As a result of Ms. Tuff’s wisdom and actions, the man left with police, and no one was harmed.
What allowed this seemingly very typical woman to act so bravely that she successfully talked a man with a rifle out of killing people?
Most parents would like to instill heroic-like qualities in their children. Do parents know how to do this? Can these qualities even be taught? The social psychology research indicates that character traits that bring heroism to the forefront in people are formed by factors beyond temperament. People are not born heroes; they are made that way. Early in life is a good time to begin shaping a child’s behaviors to instill character traits associated with heroism.
Here are some of the well researched characteristics of heroes and some tips to help parents instill these qualities in their own children:
Heroes think positive thoughts when they take risks. “I will be successful” is their thought process at the moment of action. Parents can instill positive thinking by training children to think positively when doubts emerge. For example, a child may say, “I’ll never make the team; it’s just too big of a leap.” The parent response is, “I know it feels that way, and let’s restate your concern by saying this instead — ‘Making the team may be difficult, and I am going for it anyway and giving it my all.’” Going through this process repeatedly trains a child’s brain to think positively, rather than succumb to doubt when challenged.
Persistence despite challenge
Heroes do not view adversity in their lives as a negative event. Heroes create a silver lining and reframe the event to be something they can benefit from such as, “I lost my job, and now I have more time with my family to rethink my priorities.” When a child says, “I’m giving up; this is too hard,” parent antidotes are: “Look how far you’ve come or see all you’ve accomplished,” with specific achievements named. Other examples of parent support include briefly engaging in a difficult task with the child to get him over the hurdle. Daily and highly specific affirmations (not “You did a great a job”; instead, “The way you washed each dish thoroughly reminded me of how difficult it is to clean the plates”) highlight a child’s successes and are building blocks for a strong foundation for lifelong persistence.
Heroes have an ability to take another’s viewpoint and to use it to guide their own actions. For example, heroes alter their behavior to make someone else feel more comfortable. Parents can promote this by praising these behaviors using very specific language. For example, “Your thoughtful comments like [give an example] made her feel better. I’m not sure I could have been as sensitive to her feelings.”
Heroes have an inner sense of right and wrong. They make personal sacrifices to protect their moral value system. When a child sacrifices because it’s the right thing to do, ask them to articulate their thought process: “I noticed you helped your little brother put his coat on, rather than run ahead with your friend. What were you thinking?” or, “I saw that you didn’t contribute when your friends were giving that kid a hard time; tell me why?” When kids state how and why they live “right,” they begin to see the power of their thoughts and behavior.
Heroes not only take another’s perspective, they also act on it. People who rush in to help others in need do so because they genuinely care about the safety and well-being of others, and they are not thinking of themselves at that moment. Set a standard of kindness and reinforce it with “random acts of kindness” in your home. Monitor and reward these acts with a weekend prize for the whole family.
Heroes believe they have something to offer when they act. For example, when speaking up for a bullied peer or stopping a child from running out into traffic, heroes are able to manage stress and keep focused while acting. The best way to instill confidence is to give your child opportunities to genuinely shine. Not the kind that are handed out at the end of a soccer season where every team member gets medal; rather, acts like completing a challenging chore, solving a difficult math problem, or additional responsibility like caring for a younger sibling.
Parenting Tip: Parents that role-model heroic qualities give a child a wonderful gift: the ability to watch and learn heroic behavior from his ultimate heroes, his parents.
Dr. Kate Roberts is a psychologist and parent coach on the North Shore. Questions can be directed to www.drkateroberts.com, www.twitter.com/DrKateParenting, www.facebook.com/Dr.KateRoberts or www.pinterest.com/DrKateParenting.