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Why Kids Need Heroes

You and your husband are your child's most influential teachers, and he'll learn a lot about decision making, problem solving, and healthy risk taking by watching and emulating the two of you. But no parent can -- or should even try to -- provide the range of experiences that kids need to understand the world. In fact, your child's character can be influenced by a host of role models, from his grandparents to Barney.

Most of the people a child admires will probably be among those he interacts with regularly. But he can also look up to folks he's never even met. Although my grandmother died before I was born, the stories I heard of her resilience, how she single-handedly raised five kids after my grandfather died, inspired me. And groups of individuals -- such as firefighters -- can also exhibit values we want our kids to possess as they grow up.

You can find positive role models all around you:

Your family
In the best of all worlds, our kids would live close to their extended family so they could absorb values from them. After all, it's the everyday moments that allow a child to open up and ask questions and have heart-to-heart discussions with her grandparents and other relatives. But even if your family's far away, your children can get a lot out of stories about them.

I have a cousin who's 14 years older, and she has served as a role model for me since childhood -- though we didn't meet until just a few years ago. My father always told me about her remarkable academic achievements: her college and graduate-school scholarships, her Ph.D. When we finally met, Janice was surprised to discover how much I'd been influenced by her positive example. Even the youngest child is fascinated by the idea that the grown-ups in her life were once kids too. So whether it's you or your mom who's telling her about your childhood, she'll appreciate hearing about the tough decisions you faced or even the mistakes you made, especially when she's dealing with a touchy situation.

Contributing editor Marianne Neifert, M.D., is a pediatrician, an author, and a mother of five.