Recent news of ex-New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez’s arrest has left football fans throughout the country feeling shocked. Disappointed parents and crestfallen kids may still be processing the events involving one of their sports heroes. But is Hernandez a hero? Our society’s obsession with celebrity leads to confusion about the distinction between being a star and being a true hero. Athletic talent and performance can make a football player a star, but true heroism is based on strong character and heroic acts. While adults are struggling to separate his character from his talents as an athlete, children may be feeling outright betrayed by the notion that Hernandez might be a murderer.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain perspective regarding the human-ness of today’s celebrity athletes who are often overexposed, overpaid, and over-idolized. Because of his success in professional sports, people assumed that Hernandez was someone to look up to and emulate. He is skilled and talented, and until last week, he was part of the elite and revered New England Patriots.
Many adult fans convince themselves that it’s OK to idolize celebrity sports stars out of loyalty to their local team. Parents may unwittingly pass this on to the children around them without recognizing the message they are sending. Like many professional athletes, Hernandez came to be looked upon as a role model for the wrong reasons.
Hernandez’s tragedy is an opportunity for families to talk about values and character. Here are some tips for parents when discussing Hernandez with their children:
Consider a child’s developmental age. Children younger than age 10 lack the abstract thinking ability to process how a sports star could be both a great and popular athlete and a murder suspect. Avoid discussing details of the violence. If the topic of Hernandez comes up, focus on things that are easier and less troubling for them to process. Tell them that since Hernandez is not a professional football player anymore, it’s no longer appropriate to display gear with his name and image on it.
Avoid editorializing. In general, even if your child is older, don’t share your opinion on the details of the matter. You’ll gain information regarding your child’s perspective if you listen to him or her and try to stay neutral while helping them process.
Use Hernandez as an example of what a hero is not. Present him as someone who was idolized based solely on his athletic skills and not his behavior and character.
Define a hero as one who performs heroic acts. This is an opportunity to help your children understand what a true hero is. Provide examples of your own heroes and describe the qualities of those you consider heroic. Examples — like a family you know that helped another family in need or the first responders who saved lives at this year’s Boston Marathon — bring heroes up close and make them real.
Monitor your children’s celebrity idol worship. Children who are over-focused on celebrities at are greater risk for copying negative behavior.
Explain that people have different personas. If your kids are old enough to understand, explore the contrast between Hernandez’s public persona and true character. Parents can use this approach to discuss how sometimes people act different ways in different settings.
Use this as an opportunity to reinforce the concept of moral character. Teach your kids about empathy and compassion. Explore your children’s capacity for empathy and find ways to build empathy, such as volunteering to help those in need or instituting an “acts of kindness” initiative at home.
Point out that kids who excel in sports are often seen as role models. If your children are high school athletes, instill in them a sense of responsibility. Remind them that they, too, might be seen as role models for younger children and they need to be aware of the importance of modeling good behavior.
Help them to understand that being a good person is more important than winning at sports. Sometimes, fans glorify sports superstars without knowing much about their character. The desire to identify with the winner contributes to their willingness to overlook bad behavior.
Don’t make excuses for the bad behavior of a star performer. The fact that someone is a superstar doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for him or her to violate the rights of others. Explain to your children that top-performing athletes are responsible for their actions just like everybody else.
The higher the pedestal, the greater the disappointment. Discuss with your kids how idolizing someone can lead to extreme reactions if the person they idolize ends up disappointing them. If you have an example of a fallen idol from your own experience, share that with them. The message here is to learn to view people realistically and avoid seeing them as better than they are. It’s easy to be seduced into thinking a great performer is great in every respect. Help your kids to see that no one can actually live up to such idealization and oversimplification.
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.