Kids can do amazing things. Here’s how to guide them along the way.
Paloma Rambana knew life was unfair for kids like her. As a nine-year-old with a visual disorder called Peters’ Anomaly, she often had trouble seeing words in her classroom or making out faraway objects. Paloma’s parents paid for the support she needed in public school, including a dedicated vision instructor, but she knew other visually impaired students in her state weren’t as lucky. Florida had what people called a “funding gap,” meaning kids from ages 6-13 weren’t getting nearly as much classroom support as younger or older kids.
So Paloma, now 14, decided to take action. With the backing of her family and a local non-profit, she visited the Florida state capital to have dozens of talks with elected officials. She told them about her own experience and why it was so crucial for kids with vision problems to have extra help and classroom technology. Her efforts paid off: After hearing from Paloma and others, Florida lawmakers granted more than $1 million in additional funding for visually impaired kids.
While Paloma’s journey is impressive, it’s also one that almost any kid can emulate. The more bold and determined young people I spoke with while writing my kids’ book The Life Heroic, the more convinced I became that age is no object when it comes to pursuing a heroic goal. In fact, research shows that most heroes—young or old—are ordinary people who summon the grit to do something extraordinary. When kids brainstorm changes they want to make in the world, or prepare themselves to help people in trouble, there are few limits to what they can do.
As a parent, what can you do to sharpen your kids’ heroic instincts without pushing or stage-managing them? Studies of real-life heroes show us that selfless behavior often takes root when young people encounter role models who care about others. Parents are essential in this regard. But when kids hear about people their age who’ve stood up for others in real life, it can help them imagine themselves doing something similar.
While working on my book, I interviewed Juliana Davis, who started a petition when in high school asking Apple to remove the After School phone app from its online store—she’d learned her classmates were using it to bully and harass other students anonymously. I also spoke with Ethan King, whose organization Charity Ball—founded when he was 10—has donated soccer balls to impoverished communities around the world.
Whether young or old, I’ve learned, what most spurs heroes to action is seeing a situation that bothers them so much that they’re determined to fix it. So ask kids if they’ve ever noticed a situation like this. What would they change if they could? Then, challenge them to take one specific step to improve the situation—something that’s well within their reach, like starting a petition or launching a fundraising club at school (have them decide what the step will be!). And to prove you’ve got skin in the game, too, challenge yourself to right an injustice you’ve noticed. You and your kids can check in with each other about the progress you’ve made.
To start a heroic journey, or stand up for someone in trouble, kids also have to feel comfortable standing out in a crowd. So it can be fun to encourage them to do something around others that they’d normally think was off-the-wall. Have them brainstorm about what they want to try. Maybe they’ll decide to wear a rainbow clown wig to school all day, or maybe they’ll want to walk up to grocery store shoppers and compliment them out of the blue. Afterward, talk to them about what the experience was like. Did standing out that way feel as weird as they thought it would? Did that practice help them feel brave enough to stand up for someone else or speak up for what they believe?
When kids begin to flex their courageous muscles early on, as Paloma, Juliana, and Ethan did, they often form habits that carry over into adulthood. If they take action and see that it makes a difference—whether it’s shutting down a bully or starting their own non-profit—they’ll feel confident and capable of taking another stand in the future. Ultimately, they’ll mature into adults who will blow the whistle on corruption or support others in reaching their highest potential.