This article was submitted to the Dads Fight Back 100k Stories Project by Michael Sabbeth. Micheal is a lawyer, consultant, lecturer and author. For twenty-five years he has created and taught classes on ethics and moral reasoning to young children in Denver-area elementary schools. Mr. Sabbeth has created and taught a Continuing Legal Education course titled The Ethics of Rhetoric: An Advanced Advocacy Skill. He is the author of The Good, The Bad & The Difference: How to Talk with Children About Values, available on Amazon.com.He is currently writing the book Proud to Hunt: Tips for Being an Effective Instructor and Student. Mr. Sabbeth lives in Denver, Colorado with his wife and his three children nearby. You can follow him on Facebook, and visit his website.
“To make a nation truly great, a handful of heroes capable of great deeds at a supreme moment is not enough. Heroes are not always available, and one can often do without them! But it is essential to have thousands of reliable people—honest citizens—who steadfastly place the public interest before their own.”
– PASQUALE VILLANI
How do you know what your children value? Indeed, how do you know what they think about anything? One way is to ask, but, sometimes extracting a response is not easy. Two decades ago my daughter, Alexandra, then seven, was lying on a couch. I asked, “Alexandra, what are you thinking about?” She solemnly replied, “Nothing.” Not dissuaded, I mentioned that her sister, Elise, (older) and her brother, Erik, (younger) enthusiastically discussed their thoughts with me. “What’s with you, Alexandra?” She answered emphatically, “Dad, my thoughts aren’t that complicated!” Seven years old!
Fast forward to today. Parents are competing for their children’s thoughts with formidable opponents: TV, video games and several media platforms. Removing the iPhone or iPad or iWhatever from the child’s grasp can be as challenging as taking away a life preserver from a drowning person. But the effort, often requiring tenacious persistence, can yield magnificent insights as treasured as gold extracted from a deep vein.
I share some insights into children’s values gleaned since my discharge in January 1990 from Porter Hospital in Denver after open-heart surgery. For twenty-five years or so I have been a guest in Denver-area elementary schools teaching moral reasoning and character-building skills. With hundreds of children, beginning with Elise’s first-grade class, we explored, sometimes contentiously, children’s values, fears, and joys. Learning who these little folks respect and view as heroes has been illuminating and inspiring, even a comforting journey.
Almost every year, in my first class of the year I handed out a questionnaire. The first question was “Who are your heroes?” The second question asked the student to explain why the selected person was a hero. When completed I collected the questionnaires and then had class discussions about the answers.
Any dictionary defines a hero as a person admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities, such as a war hero. A hero is selfless, acting to achieve a greater virtuous purpose.
Many students’ answers to the first question were not surprising. Some listed doctors they knew that saved lives; some listed police and firefighters because they take great risks to help others, particularly those who served, and those who perished, during the 9/11 attacks. One student selected Jackie Robinson because he endured racism and influenced a professional sport to reject it. One impressive child chose Abraham Lincoln because he unified our country. One youngster’s hero was her wheelchair-bound neighbor born with spinal bifida because “he never complained and always seemed happy.” No student ever nominated the Chairman of the Federal Reserve for maintaining low interest rates.
These selections are well-reasoned, inspirational and thoughtful and illustrate the capacity of young children for deep thinking. But answers such as the above were not the predominant ones. By about 80% the heroes identified were the parents. Not celebrities, not rich people, not popular athletes, but moms and dads. Let that sink in.
As I share in greater detail in my book, The Good, The Bad & The Difference, the youngsters acknowledged that their parents were their heroes because they were the folks that devoted their time, day in and day out, to raise them and make them better people. As the minutes on the classroom clock ticked away, the students increasingly acknowledged their parents sacrificed for them and spent time and resources on them that the parents could have directed to themselves. The parents fed them, clothed them, took them to doctors and dentists, to sports practices, school events and much more. “I know they could have more stuff if they didn’t have to raise me,” many a child has said.
But of all the reasons the children respected their parents, the most honored and emphatic was that parents helped them become stronger and better people. Describing the parents’ highest virtue, Samantha, a second-grader of diminutive stature, gave one of the most insightful and uplifting explanations. “Parents teach us how to live right.” That insight, that accolade, was repeated in various ways over the decades. Parents teach us to be stronger. Parents teach us to be better people. Most significantly, parents teach children right from wrong; good from evil.
Parents also enable their children to feel proud. Parents enable their children to feel honored and respected. Children have consistently told me over the decades they feel proud when a parent asks for their opinion. Asking the uncluttered straightforward question, “What do you think?” is one of the most powerful engines for making a child feel honored. The honor is greater when the parent is the source of the question. Christina told one class, “My mom or my dad tells me that I made a good point and then I feel really good about that.” Jessie, a fourth-grader, made an illuminating statement: “When they ask my opinion, it shows that they respect me. Not whatever they say goes. It’s okay to disagree. If they disagree, talk about it. If they talk and take the time to explain, then they show that they care about you.”
Angelo made one of the most soulful comments in all my years in the classroom. “Parents respect us when they talk about things that they’re proud of or that they’re ashamed of.” I was perplexed. Why, I asked, did it show respect to talk about what a parent is ashamed of? His answer was profound. “It shows they can be honest and talk about the good and the bad things. It shows me that they treat me as a friend.” Don’t these words from little children send a little tingle down your spine?
Here are some of the lyrics of the soul-churning song “I Need a Hero” sung powerfully by Bonnie Tyler, recorded in 1984, I believe.
Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
Late at night I toss and I turn
And I dream of what I need.
I need a hero, I’m holding out for a hero
Who are the most important heroes in your child’s life? You are! You help your children become a stronger better person. You teach right from wrong. You help your child feel proud. Your children know it. They might not tell you, but they know it. They don’t need a fiery steed. They have you!