Archive for Thursday, September 12, 2002

Courage, nobility and heroes

September 12, 2002

They are the quintessential heroes.

The firefighters who charged up burning stairways at New York City's World Trade Center last Sept. 11 emblazoned an image of courage and nobility on America's history, says Chuck Smith, a human development specialist at Kansas State University.

"That's one powerful, vivid example of heroism, and one that's been on our minds a lot," Smith said. "Those men and women rushed up the stairs out of a sense of duty, responsibility and caring about the public they serve."

Smith, the creator of an award-winning Web site called the WonderWise Parent, has just released his newest on-line work, called the Everyday Hero. The site, which can be found at, is a teaching tool to help people understand the origins of heroic behavior and how adults can help children understand heroism.

Like many others, Smith said the terror of Sept. 11 was upsetting to him. But as a college professor, he was naturally inclined to ask: "What can I do to help students understand what these people (terrorists) did, and what can children learn from this? As a scientist trying to understand origins of this behavior, it's become a very important direction in my work."

And part of that is understanding not only courageous acts that take place in emergency situations, but also heroism that people display in their everyday lives. Smith said heroism should not necessarily be

associated solely with the "major headline-getters," such as the acts witnessed on Sept. 11.

"Heroism can occur in quiet moments, out of the public spotlight. And, indeed, it does happen every day," Smith said. "A parent who wakes up every night to care for a child with a chronic, life-threatening disease is an everyday hero. So is the parent who stands up to a belligerent teenager by setting fair and appropriate limits and ensuring that reasonable consequences are in place."

Parents' commitment to their children, he says, often is "heroism borne out of endurance."

"Everyday heroism is what we do when we face a risk, refuse the instruction to run away, and act to achieve something more important than (personal) safety," Smith said.

He notes that a hero is not by any stretch an athlete who scores a touchdown, or dunks a basketball. Nor is a hero the man who brings home flowers for his wife, as a television commercial suggests.

In fact, in contrast to the highly-publicized world of professional sports, everyday heroes "don't do this stuff for the camera or the newspaper reporters," Smith said. "You don't put your life on the line or face those risks for publicity. It's much too personal for that."

He adds: "It's possible that we think of heroism as the best evidence of a person's true nature. It may be that your life is on the line, or perhaps you die because you care about someone or some belief. People who do heroic behavior are really acting out of a deep sense of principles they have within themselves."

Children also can be everyday heroes in unconventional ways, says Smith. For example, a child with asthma or a disfigurement learns to cope and hopefully succeed in school despite the taunts or fearful stares of classmates.

"(Heroism) is dealing with the fear for a noble cause," Smith said. "It's being able to say, "I'm a person worth something despite what some people are saying or doing."

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, may serve to reinforce the concept of everyday heroes.

"Sad tragedies help reaffirm the importance of heroism," Smith said. "It's not just the recognition of heroism that others have shown, but also looking at ourselves and the people we love and asking ourselves what have we learned from this. Maybe when our turn comes to respond to this type of fear, we will respond heroically."

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