Monday, February 09, 2009

Fallen Heroes

I am usually hard pressed positive youth role models for children in America. The buzz is often around celebrities like Miley Cyrus and I don't find their example to be particularly empowering for kids - specially for little girls. Then as was there was Michael Phelps.

When J returned to school after summer break last year, Phelps had unseated every other young celebrity kids are familiar with. Even the Jonas Brothers had lost a little bit of their cool ans sheen. Phelps was their hero and very rightly so given his spectacular achievement. I can't remember how many entries for the year's Reflections Project themed "Wow!", had Phelps for the subject.

Clearly he had captured their imagination. It was highly instructive for them to learn how hard he had worked to achieve what he had - that is exactly the message you want to convey. Phelps had helped many a parent illustrate their point about hard work being the only way to achieve anything worthwhile and durable in life. It was going great for everyone until the whole pot incident surfaced.

J has been in awe of Phelps like many other kids and does know about this little aberration in the fairytale. She is disappointed that her idol is already blemished and does not know whether he still belongs on the pedestal but she is not even fully sure of that. The young hero-worshippers are being forced to grapple with tough moral questions that are beyond their capacity to answer.

With all the public chastisement Phelps is receiving for his mistake, younger kids could perhaps take away that talent and achievement does not make people inculpable - a good cautionary tale but a huge damper on their enthusiasm about him. If they are slightly older and are able to keep up with the chain of events in the media, they may infer that being a celebrity allows you to get away with a lot - that the standard are different for the ordinary and the famous. No matter how old or well-informed they are , all the kids are missing out on having a hero who is entirely admirable and flawless.

Growing up is in a good part about learning such lessons about our heroes but with today's kids the lessons seem have come a little before its time. Childhood is not quite it used to be before the 24/7 news cycles and the Internet came along. It is perhaps inevitable that learning life lessons will be accelerated along with everything else. Those of us who continue to be nostalgic about a time when our heroes remained unsullied in our eyes for a lot longer, will just to get used to a changed world and its frenetic pace.

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