Monday, November 28, 2011

The Family Hero

Our handyman was standing in our upstairs hallway talking on his cell phone.  He had been interrupted in the middle of a job he was doing for us to answer a call from his sister, something about financing on the family farm.  The call went on and on.  “What’s she calling him for,” I wondered grumpily.  Then it clicked.  “Family Hero,” I thought.

The Family Hero is a child, sometimes, but not always, the eldest, whom the parents designate as a special helper.  This individual may be chosen because he or she is particularly mature or simply because the parents feel they need the extra help.  For a child, it can be flattering to be selected for this important role; it defines your place in the family and enhances your self-esteem.  My handyman said, “I like being the Family Hero.”  It may also create a closer bond with the parents.  Family Heroes often help to care for their siblings or participate in the parents’ discussions and plans, almost like another adult.    

There are some down sides to this situation, however.  Giving too much responsibility to one child may discourage initiative on the part of the others.  If the Family Hero is always there to help, why should anyone else bother? For the Heroic child, a sense of obligation to family may limit other lifetime options.  She or he may be uncertain about career choices; when you already have a job there is less incentive to look for another.   Whenever there is a family crisis the Family Hero is expected to be on the scene; if this means leaving a job, a spouse, or children, those others will just have to get by on their own; family comes first.   In many situations the Family Hero may not actually be able to do anything, but his or her presence is felt to be reassuring.

 In childhood, the parents tended to forget that the Family Hero was still a child who deserved nurturing and protection.  In adulthood, they think of him or her as still being part of their family and not as an independent person with a separate life.  Even after the parents are gone, adult siblings may continue to treat the Hero as a surrogate parent who can be expected to provide moral and financial support when they are needed.  Then there is old age:  after everyone else’s needs have been met, who is there to take care of the Family Hero?
The financial problems with our handyman’s family farm were resolved; the job at our house was completed.  Life went on – until the next phone call.

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