Heroes and villains

Another iconic sportsman is in the spotlight, leaving us confused and trying to decide whether he can remain a hero or must be cast into the role of villain. Apart from the actual crime such media stars are accused of committing they are usually blamed for letting the public down, not respecting their status as a role model and making the task of parenting even harder. But we cannot put all the responsibility for developing character strengths onto the shoulders of others. Children don’t only learn what they are told, they learn what they experience. Witnessing how a parent or teacher reacts to the bad behavior of others has more of an influence than any verbal advice you can give them. Modeling understanding and compassion for human error is invaluable at times like these – but difficult, as we have been trained since early childhood to judge and condemn others on their behavior.

Humans have a tendency to neatly polarize everything we experience. We are more comfortable when information can be neatly classified into two separate boxes of good and evil, right and wrong. Because humans learn through experiences in relationship with others we also struggle to separate people from their behavior, viewing the person and the action as a whole. So the real danger in ‘either-or’ thinking is that we put people in the boxes along with the behavior and start to see the world in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’.  When we make a split between good and bad we also decide which side we see ourselves standing on, defining our values. But real life is seldom clear cut and great conflict is experienced when things don’t fit easily into the boxes. A child of divorce usually exists in a tense world where his personal heroes, his precious parents, have set themselves up on opposite sides of what, and who, is right and wrong.

It’s not easy to stop judging others as good and bad. In our own childhoods we were called bad and punished by parents when we made a mistake. This threatening experience of ending up in the ‘bad box’, cut off from the person we most needed to get love and understanding from has long reaching emotional consequences. We live in fear of being judged as ‘not good enough’ as it is linked to feeling rejected, unworthy and unlovable. We prefer to place ourselves on the side of good and push other people over to the dark side. We also project anything negative outside onto society because we cannot face that it might live within us. This pattern is clearly visible in the symbolism of legends, religious texts, and movies where tales of heroes and villains are plentiful. We identify with the hero, anticipate that good will triumph over evil and love watching the inevitable downfall of the villain. So it is understandable that we are completely unsettled when someone we’ve thought of as a perfect role-model does something terribly wrong. It calls to an unspeakable inner fear that perhaps we can also fall from grace and become unlovable. We fear that real evil might actually exist because unconsciously we fear it exists in us.

If we can change the way we teach young children to perceive their own behavior and the nature of good and evil in the world, we can remodel our world.

  •  See your child as separate from his behavior When your child has behaved in an inappropriate way make it clear to him that you still love him but you are unhappy with the way he behaved. Tell him that the next time he chooses to behave in that way there will be a consequence for the behavior. In this way you punish the act, not the child, and they are given the opportunity to try and control their own behavior, as well as an opportunity to live with the consequences of their own bad choices. This nurtures self awareness and self discipline. If we stop looking for heroes and villains in our own lives, and view behavior as choices, children learn they can still have a relationship with someone who has made bad choices.
  • Shades of grey Daily life presents us with many opportunities where we are going to feel either inflated (good box) or deflated (bad box). Our inner value system, programmed by our experience of being judged less than perfect in the past, is deciding in which box we can stand. When your child and their sports team is upset at not coming first, help them to throw out the notion of being a ‘winner’ or ‘complete loser’ and visualize a grey line running between the two ideas. If they were willing to participate they cannot be a complete loser. If the feeling that they didn’t deserve to win comes more naturally they can also be helped to see how they are devaluing their achievement.
  •  Locate the greatness in yourself Role models can help to inspire us and motivate us to reach even higher. We are dynamically attracted to a quality in another because it is yearning to be found and nurtured within ourselves. The quantum nature of the universe is an entangled balance of binary pairs. When we split off the parts we don’t like or can’t see they still remain part of us. The more we don’t see a quality in ourselves the harder it has to try and get recognized. Things we wish we were, but can’t acknowledge, show up in the faces of our heroes. The parts we deny because we refuse to go in the ‘bad box’ are reflected in the criminals.If we constantly hero-worship others we are giving away our inner strengths and can risk never reaching our potential. When your child speaks in admiration of a media star ask them what exactly they like about that person and then help them to recognise ways in which they already demonstrate, or are missing opportunities to develop, the same quality in their own lives. When your child criticizes the behavior others help them to look at both sides of the story with curiosity and empathy. This will help them learn to see their own behaviour with the same balance.
  • Motivate in the moment Children pick up that when they are being good they are valued more and can feel that perfection is what is expected of them. The assessment process in schools repeats the same programming. For most, this sets up unreachable goals and an inevitable sense of failure. Some children even give up hope in ever doing the right thing and begin to focus on being the naughtiest child as they can succeed at that. Continue to give your child affection even when they are behaving badly. Try focus on each moment rather than the end result of any tasks. If a child receives positive attention and is affirmed while she is working it builds intrinsic motivation. If she is left in a relationship vacuum and only evaluated on the end result she struggles to develop self worth and learns to rely on outside motivation.
Written by Sheryl Maastrecht. Educational Psychologist in private practice. EAST LONDON South Africa
Published in Saturday Dispatch 2013-02-23

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