This week we are reading together the Parents’ Review article, Hero-Worship by G.E. Troutbeck written in 1903.
When I first chose this article, I pictured myself beginning my comments with a disclaimer that worship is to be reserved only for God and that, of course, the author knew this, that the word ‘worship’ indicated something different, that the author really just meant ‘admiration’, etc. After reading the article, on one level I think I was wrong. The author says that we look to children for their “generous enthusiasms and warm-hearted, if perhaps undiscriminating, admiration of great men and great causes.” Referred to as ‘worship’ in the rest of the article, the type of admiration that children have for heroes is much more passionate than the type of admiration adults have. Like the early days of a young romance, it is almost obsessive in nature and it sweetly lacks the ability to see anything but the positive.
Troutbeck urges us not to encourage our children to develop “the critical habit of mind” too early. This habit develops easily enough on its own far too soon. She said children should not grow up in an atmosphere where someone is continually saying something negative or critical. Interestingly, she points out that the cultivation of the critical faculty is “often a cheap way of getting a reputation for smartness” — so true! In all walks of life, a criticism tends to be looked up on as true insight and knowledge.
The author says not to worry too soon about waking our children up to the pessimistic truth — today we would say helping them ‘think critically’. Not to be misunderstood, critical thinking skills are absolutely essential and sorely lacking in many young people and adults nowdays. However, the time and place for their development is probably in the pre-teen/teen years. This idea spoke to me as it is my natural tendency to constantly point out cynical ‘insights’ and anything I consider conspiracies in order to help my children be wise to the world around them. (Generally, the eye-rolling I get tells me when I am over-doing it.)
Why encourage our children to linger on in the phase of their life when they ‘live in a fantasy world’ with their heroes? The author suggests many reasons. Here are a few of my favourite:
Hero-worship teaches children to recognize merit. Heroes always have outstanding qualities the separate them from everyone else around them. In the ‘real world’, admirable qualities are very present but sometimes harder to recognize than in stories. In the hero world of a child’s mind, they are very obvious. A child learns to notice these admirable qualities through exposure to worthy heroes.
On a practical level, hero worship inspires children to learn history. It would be a very dry and dull subject without the inspiring stories of the people who stood out as remarkable leaders throughout time. As with Charlotte Mason’s schools, our homeschool makes liberal use of living books, ones that allow us to ‘live’ out the stories contained within. Many textbooks, such as the ones I used in school when learning history, take all the life out of a subject by leaving out the inspiring stories in order to efficiently present factual material. Unfortunately, it is precisely because of leaving out these inspiring stories that the material ends up not being truly learned. When we love someone, we want to know everything about them and learn it effortlessly.
Hero-worship teaches children to be great — and to be humble. The author says that “Nothing calls out our powers and faculties so fully and so adequately as personal influence, the influence, direct or indirect, of someone whom we at the same time love and admire.” When a child is in that stage of ‘hero worship’ and are connected to a worthy hero through a wonderful book, they end up coming to love and admire that hero. Like the young romantic, the obsessive, undiscriminating nature of this love teaches the child to strive to be great, just like his hero. At the same time, the recognition of real greatness casts a bright light on our own limitations. In a very healthy way, our children learn humility by looking at the greatness of someone else (even though — maybe because — it is an unrealistic picture — leaving out the negative traits.)
Hero worship causes children to recognize the heroic in ordinary people and ordinary situations. Because they have learned to recognize merit in heroes, they are able to then pick out everyday heroism when it is harder to see. This builds admiration and respect for the real people in their lives and relational world.
Children are naturally drawn to heroes. As parents in today’s age, our challenge is to present our children with worthy and noble heroes during the time when they are defining, for themselves, what qualities they believe make a hero. If we do not go out of our way to present these worthy heroes to our children, they will default to worldly ‘heroes’. For boys, this is likely to mean worship of professional athletes. While there are lots of characteristics to admire about professional athletes, few of them live a life of integrity and would make worthy heroes for our sons. For our daughters, their default heroes will likely be actresses or singers from popular culture. Sadly, the hero-worthiness situation is grim here, too.
I admit it. I love the sheltering aspect of homeschooling. I love that our young children sometimes talk like they are from 1950. (Without a word of a lie, two years ago, my son said he could not wear a certain very-nice outfit to church because, “if I do the other kids will be giving me the business.”) They cannot and should not stay sheltered forever, though. Our job is not to keep them from the world forever. I think our job is to do our best to help our children feel ‘at home’ with goodness, to develop a taste for truth and love and integrity when they are young so that when they are gradually released from our safe nest, they are uncomfortable with the opposite.
We introduce our children to worthy heroes this way:
Our children have a biography of a Christian hero on the go at all times as part of their homeschooling. We start new readers (gr. 1-2) with the Hero Tales volumes written by Dave and Neta Jackson. Each of the four volumes contains several easily narrated biographies in short segments that highlight a few fascinating stories from the hero’s life. From there, our children move onto longer biographies, beginning with the fairly easy to read Christian Heroes: Then and Now series of books by Janet and Geoffrey Benge. As they complete one book (reading about 2 chapters a week), we just insert another one.
I will end with this quote from the article, which I loved. I am looking very forward to hearing your thoughts about the article, too.
‘Learning,’ as Hegel points out, ‘when regarded as a mere process of reception and matter of memory, is a most imperfect kind of education…It is through thinking that the thoughts of others are seized, and this after-thinking is the real learning.’ When all is said and done, is not the end and aim of all true education the formation of character?
Read Full Post »