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When Heroes Disappoint Our Kids

Fancy Photography for Veer

The first thing you see on Lance Armstrong's Twitter feed is an image of Lance the dad: He's on a bike, with one of his sons dangling from his neck. The first thing you read on Armstrong's Twitter feed is "Raising my five kids. Fighting cancer." That shows you where he priorities are. It makes me wonder if Armstrong has already endured the toughest conversation of his life, one that predated the chat with Oprah, which will air as a two-part series on OWN beginning Thursday night. I wonder if he sat below those seven well-lit Tour de France jerseys on display in his Austin home, with five kids next to him on the sofa, and explained to them What Dad Did.

Once the world knows the story later this week, how will we explain it to our kids? When they come home asking what doping is, or why Shaun White is sporting a black eye on the local news, or why no players were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013, how do you rectify that with the poster over the bed or the yellow bracelet on their wrist? How is a parent supposed to talk to their child about such things?

“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.”

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.”

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.

“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.”

Armstrong certainly would not the first dad my two sons have seen falter. They’ve seen me go from G-rated to F-bomb, among other flubs. Luckily, when I do mess up and apologize to them, I don't have to tell the world in a two-part series on basic cable. The three of us on the sofa is hard enough.