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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.

Caregivers and teachers

Those who take care of your child have the potential to be among the most influential role models. Why? Caregivers are stand-ins for Mom and Dad, so what they say and do has special power. And a teacher's word is law because kids, particularly young ones, look up to them so much.

When a teacher refuses to tolerate rude behavior in her classroom, she's modeling the importance of treating others with respect. When a babysitter encourages the child under her care to find good ways to take turns, she's showing him how to solve his problems fairly.

Reinforce the values your child is learning in the outside world by discussing his day with him. Ask questions that make him think about his actions -- and those of the people (big and little) around him. For example, if he tells you he pushed another child who took his spot during circle time, you could ask him what the teacher did to resolve the problem and what he could do differently the next time.

Books
Little kids encounter some early role models among fictional characters, who can teach them about self-control or being comfortable with themselves.

When you read together, ask questions: "What makes Frog and Toad such good friends?" "That's a tough choice that Curious George had to make -- that would you do?"

As your child learns to read, she'll probably enjoy serial novels, which feature the same characters and have plots in which the hero predictably triumphs over evil (or at least a bad day). As a young girl, I really loved reading the Nancy Drew mysteries, and I think the example of a girl in a nontraditional role -- a competent female detective -- helped inspire me to enter medicine at a time when most doctors were men.

TV
Television usually gets a bad rap, but it can teach little viewers good things too. Whether it's Arthur, Bob the Builder, or the Sesame Street characters, you can enhance their positive example by pointing out their good deeds and choices. Also, summarize the lesson the characters learned: "At first they didn't get along. Then they became friends and helped each other out."

National leaders
Kids and grown-ups alike can be inspired by another person's vision, courage, and self-sacrifice. When I was young, I loved to read biographies of famous people: Whenever I learned about men and women who'd achieved their goals and made a difference in the world, it motivated me to do things well too.

Holidays can be a great way to bring up the subject of why we celebrate heroes' actions. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, talk about his use of nonviolent protests; on the Fourth of July, discuss Thomas Jefferson's efforts on behalf of independence. You can even plan simple activities to reinforce the values you admire. For example, near Thanksgiving, donate canned goods to a shelter; around the Fourth or Presidents' Day, write a letter together about a topic that affects kids and send it to your local newspaper or representative. And as your child gets older, talk about the difficult issues that men and women in power have to wrestle with.

When a role model isn't positive

Kids can also learn from other people's poor choices -- say, a pal who won't share or an uncle who drinks too much -- without having to make the same mistakes themselves. Here's how:

* Talk about negative behavior you and your child witness, whether it's on the playground or on TV. If you see an older kid talking back to his mom, you might say, "That kid was being disrespectful. We don't treat others that way."

? Focus on the consequences that result from decisions. For instance, a child who rides her bike without a helmet can hurt herself, and one who's mean to his friends will have trouble keeping them.

Your job
When preschoolers play house, they look to their parents as examples. But kids also observe your attitude toward what you do outside the home (whether you're employed or you volunteer). It doesn't surprise me that two of my children became doctors. Not only did I talk about my work with them, I also gave medical presentations at their school and let all five children serve as volunteers for the "practice examinations" by the medical students I was training at the time.

While your children may not follow your chosen career path, they're sure to be influenced by your work ethic. Now and then, bring your child along to let him see what you do. (If your job doesn't allow this, stop by your workplace on a day off.) And talk about your work often -- mention the problems you've solved, how you've made yourself feel better on a tough day, or a project you're proud of and why.

Your place of worship
Even a toddler is naturally open to accepting a spiritual world beyond her understanding; besides learning from the clergy, she'll probably enjoy hearing stories from your faith. You can tell or read them anytime, but if you're not observant, try introducing one during a religious holiday. Such tales have affirmed the moral values I believe in, and they've imparted the comforting conviction that God is involved in the daily affairs of humans.

Actions always speak louder than words. The way you -- and those your child loves and admires -- live teaches more effectively than lectures and advice. Your collective example can help your little one weather his ups and downs and challenge him to become more than he thought possible.

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