My boy is only four and when I asked him today what a hero was he said a person who had been bitten by a bug. Oh, or bat, “Don’t forget the bat, Mama!” Huh? It took another minute of conversation before I realized that Mary Tyler Son’s concept of hero does not extend past super hero, like Spiderman who gained his super powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider or Bat Man, who gained his powers after being bitten by a bat.
Cute, and kind of proved my point. Four is a little too young to connect the concept of hero to just a regular ‘ole person. At four, hero = super hero, a rare and illustrated breed.
These past few days, months, years of sports stars turn hero turn eternally flawed turn bordering on convicted felon have me spinning. My boy is too little to have his dreams dashed and his heroes felled by their human nature, but kids just a few years older are right there. It got me wondering how parents are dealing with this pandemic of felled heroes.
Lance Armstrong wasn’t just a champion cyclist, he won the Tour de France a record seven times after surviving his diagnosis of metasticized testicular cancer. He founded the Lance Armstrong LiveStrong Foundation raising millions for cancer research and support programs. Oscar Pistorius is a South African runner whose legs were amputed below the knee at the young age of eleven months. Literally, just a babe. He excelled at sports in his childhood including water tennis, rugby, and wrestling. He sucessfully petitioned the Olympic Committee for the right to represent South Africa in last summer’s Olympics, despite the concern that his running blades gave him an unfair advantage over other runners relying on just their feet.
These men symbolized for thousands of children what it meant to be a hero. And that is with a traditional definition of ‘hero,’ a man known for his achievements, noble qualities, and great courage. These guys were no Kobe Bryants or run ‘o the mill sport stars. They were true heroes — admired as much for their character as their athletic abilities. I think that is why their downfall is so head shakingly sad.
We’ve got Lance Armstrong who for years, for years, denied any use of doping or performance enhancing drugs. As if to prove his point, he actively utilized methods of character assassination against those who dared to come forward with the truth. There was a British journalist who covered the story for years and Mr. Armstrong (perhaps that is according him too much respect) repeatedly suggested that because this man had lost a son to cancer, he had a bitter and personal axe to grind, as Lance survived while his son perished. I can’t tell you how personally offensive I find that little nugget — using a dead child against a journalist simply doing his job.
And we’ve got Oscar Pistorius, a glorious example of what can be accomplished when one is really committed, really applies themselves, to use the vernacular of elementary school teachers across the world. Oscar absolutely, positively applied himself. He performed and outperformed most of his childhood peers, excelling in athletics of many kinds, all without legs. This guy screamed hero. You couldn’t watch the Olympic coverage this summer, him sprinting around the track in his running blades, and not feel yourself cheering and hoping and feeling a teensy bit South African, if only for a moment. Oscar was the epitome of hero. Until he wasn’t. On Valentine’s Day he was charged with murdering his model girlfriend, with four gun shots fired through a closed bathroom door. Yesterday there were unconfirmed reports of steroids recovered at the scene. Today, there are reports that his girlfriend cowered behind that closed and locked door, huddled in the bathroom.
So how and what do we say to our kids about all this? Yes, people make mistakes, but since when is murder considered a mistake? Yes, we too easily glorify our sports figures, but didn’t these men qualify as something more than sports stars, as detailed above? These were the easy guys, the sports stars you cheered on right along with your kids, admiring both their sound character and performance. They were safe. They were heroes.
And now they are not.
If you are as confused as your children, share that, express that. Being a parent does not require that we have all the answers all the time. It does require that we comfort our kids, support them. Be with them in their disappointment. Stand together.
Talk about what it feels like to trust someone’s qualities and then be disappointed when those qualities are not reflected in actions. Talk about what it means to be a hero and then try to identify some — both near and far — that haven’t lost their hero status. Share some of your own heroes with your kids, both who and why. Talk about what makes a hero a hero and that another aspect of being a hero is standing the test of time. Talk about those aspects of life for Lance and Oscar that were their downfall and how those things (steroids, guns, pressure to perform) might also face your kid someday.
Managing and coping with the stress and pressure in our lives, if we are six or sixty, is one of our greatest challenges. Help your kids identify what these guys did wrong and better ways to deal with the world when things are so very tough. And how much it sucks when our heroes disappoint us.