We told the story a while back about Richard Feynman’s father, who took pains to show his son—usually by their photo in the newspaper—who was worthy of respect or not. He didn’t want his son to be fooled by appearances or titles or fancy clothes. He wanted him to know what a good man was like, and what actually made someone worth admiring.
This is something we have to do too, in our own way. Because it’s so easy for kids to learn the wrong lesson, or be distracted by the wrong role models. Your job, when you see the president lying on television, is to let your kids know that this is what a liar looks like. Your job, when you see some shameless reality star debasing themselves for attention, is to explain to them what desperation looks like and how it’s the opposite of dignity. Your job when you see a cheating team win a championship, is to explain to them why this win has an asterix and why you don’t respect it.
By the same turn, your job is also to point out heroes when they walk by or when they appear in culture. Tell them about Pat Tillman. Tell them about Harriet Tubman. Take them to Washington to see the Lincoln Monument… or to London to Parliament Square and explain why this American, who never stepped foot in England, earned a statue there too. Walk a few steps over and show them Millicent Fawcett, and Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela, and Winston Churchill.
You can talk to them about the grey area too—for no hero and no villain exists without shades of grey. But you have to talk to them about these things, you have to show them what’s what and who’s who. Start early but never let up: Show them good and evil, honor and shame, courage and cowardice, principled and pathetic… so they can model this practice in their own life.