Children are constantly working to reconcile the tension between feeling small and powerless and feeling increasingly capable and competent. It is thrilling to get bigger and to develop greater autonomy. At the same time, young children remain dependent in many ways, and the world often feels very big. We see this conflict each day, as they hold onto the signifiers of babyhood — pacifiers, diapers, and tattered blankies — while also insisting on doing everything by themselves and pushing the limits of our adult rules. As any parent of a teenager can attest, this tension between dependence and independence does not wane as children get older, and in fact it remains with us even in adulthood.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in children’s fantasy play, where crying babies and meowing kittens coexist with superheroes and unicorns in nearly every narrative. Each day, in their play, children expose the deepest vulnerabilities and the most extreme powers of the human spirit.
At the heart of this conflict lies one of our most profound teaching opportunities. While children engage in both empathy and heroism through their play, we can offer stories and experiences that not only nurture their imagination but also allow them to practice real world acts of heroism. As we move beyond the years of make-believe, many of us retain a notion of the heroic that is deeply appealing but largely fictional, rooted in the grandiosity of invulnerable figures. Fantasy can embolden us, but it must not blind us to the grittier work of repairing our real world.
Real life acts of heroism and justice are often quieter, more humble, and more communal than our hollywood images. As exciting as it is to step into the shoes of characters with inhuman abilities, it is imperative that we also teach children about the power they have to do good in their own skin. Most of the real work of justice and healing is not glamorous, but it is necessary and empowering nonetheless. We must teach our children that the impact of a kind gesture in a moment of true need is significant and transformative, even if it is not accompanied by a dramatic crescendo, the swoop of a cape, or the recognition of fame and fortune. Real heroes are usually not uniquely powerful or fearless. They are simply attuned to vulnerability and willing to put their own needs to the side, even if only for a moment, to help someone else.
One of our PreK classes met a firefighter last week — a real life hero. They learned about how he keeps people safe and about all of the tools he uses to fight fires. They also learned that he is a dad and that he keeps a picture of his daughter, their teacher, tucked inside his helmet to help him feel safe and brave, just as they keep pictures of their own families in their cubbies at school or snuggle favorite stuffed animals in the dark as they fall asleep.
In every classroom, the children are learning about how, even as small people in a big world, they can be helpers. They are learning to listen for a friend who is feeling sad or left out and to invite him to play. And they are learning to be agents of change in more far reaching ways by deciding how they will use their tzedakah collections. In one class they are planning to help animals who don’t have homes. In another they will be helping people who do not have clean, safe water to drink. Through tzedakah children discover that they can each make the world better and that their impact can be magnified when they work together in a common effort. Our older Hebrew School students are also learning the value of quiet, collaborative acts of heroism. As they participated in a Midnight Run over the weekend, they traveled through the dark city streets practicing, not only meeting need, but searching for it, actively seeking out homeless New Yorkers and offering them a meal.
As we prepare for Hanukkah and consider the lessons of courage that this story offers, we invite you to join us in modeling real world heroism by participating, with your children, in our Project Night Night drive.
More than 23,000 children in New York City go to sleep in homeless shelters every night. In collaboration with Project Night Night and Safe Horizons, we will be providing security blankets, picture books, and stuffed animals to our city’s most vulnerable children.
Resources for Parents
Born for Love by Maia Szalavitz & Bruce D. Perry
Un-Selfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in our All About Me World by Michele Borba
Roots of Empathy by Mary Gordon
Sticks and Stones by Emily Bazelon
Resources for Children
Rabbit’s Gift by George Shannon
Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting
Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts
How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham
Lily and the Paper Man by Rebecca Upjohn
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena
Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen by Dyanne Disalvo-Ryan
A Heart Just Like My Mother’s by Lela Nargi