Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Why children are always heroes

We all have our favourite stories from childhood and most of them feature a brave little character battling against the odds in a way we identified with when we were small people too.

Our hero faces down a challenge, tries their best and often succeeds - but sometimes, heartbreakingly, fails. You may grow up to read action, adventure, romance, sci-fi, whatever makes your pulse race, but the memory of that child hero lives on and if you come across them again as an adult you smile to see your old friend.

There is something about the child hero which plays a special kind of music. Is it that they are so small and vulnerable yet still fight? Is it that we wanted to be them when we were small? Or is it that every child identifies with them?

We have all been heroes as children. Little humans are meant to be cared for, taught how to cope with life, sent out into the world a bit at a time. This isn't true of every child but it is what is hoped for when our tiny ones take their first steps.

Yet for all the protection in the world, the most loving parent cannot shield their child from life's dangers. And sometimes those dangers are very far removed from the monsters of a children's story.

While brave Jack is fighting giants, brave Ben is walking into school every day. Jack might need to climb the beanstalk but Ben has to walk into the playground and never know what might happen. Giants are to be expected on beanstalks whereas playgrounds can feel like a different danger every day.

Children can suffer and need to be brave in the most mundane circumstances. It doesn't have to be actual danger to make a child feel unsafe: if school is their dreaded place and they have to go there all the time, then how safe do you think they feel? The idea of facing giants instead can seem really appealing.

In story-books, children know what to do - they are heroes after all. If danger comes, even if they are scared, they try to fight it or get away. In real-life, a child often has no idea what to do. So they can face what feels like danger and not have an answer. Imagine if Jack climbed the beanstalk and instead of outwitting the giant he stood there, frozen in fear until he was eaten? Not such a good story then!

Children need their heroes to be real enough so they feel their pain but they also need them to think on their feet and reach the answers so the real child is reassured that life can be managed, even if it feels scary and lonely.

Without the book heroes who cry in corners, your real child might think they always have to seem brave. The best heroes waver, they trip and go in the wrong direction, they lose their temper or turn to other people for help. Real heroes do all the wrong things in their desire to make it right again.

Children know all about making mistakes because they are still learning so they don't mind a faulty hero, they understand that doing it wrong means you do it right the next time. A hero is no less heroic for not getting it right first time.

And on top of all this, that hero is a child as small and unfinished as the child reading the book. The hero child wakes up and rubs their eyes with little hands, they jump out of their story-book bed and are excited for the day, they find a blood-thirsty dragon and still consider being their friend.

In the end, a child hero in a story is very firmly a child. They must be as close to a real child as your imagination can take them because real children know the truth when they see it. If that hero is always brave and never gets it wrong the story will be enjoyed and then forgotten; it is the hero who stands on the threshold of the darkened room with their shaking hand and beating heart who stays in the memory of the ordinary, real-life hero child.

In this life, as in books, all children are heroes. Some of them get to read books and see what other heroes do and some only see their heroes on TV and in the movies. That is fine, just so long as they can see themselves reflected in the beautiful, shining eyes of the imaginary child who looks back and is their friend.

Remember, sometimes a story can start with, 'Ben went through the school gates' and still be a story about a hero. There don't have to be dragons.

© Amanda J Harrington 2016

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