Children's Heroes and the Ego Ideal
Hero worship is a childhood development that begins to emerge toward the end of the preschool years and gets into full swing during middle childhood. The popularity of superheroes among elementary school children attests to this popular pastime. Even as adults we continue to have heroes, mentors, and role models that we aspire to or hold in somewhat elevated positions.
In more psychological terms, the worship of heroes reflects the development of what is called the "ego ideal." The ego ideal is a concept that originated with Freud and refers to an exalted image of what or who we would like to be. It is a concrete representation of our highest personal aspirations, values, and goals, and is very often embodied by figures in our direct environment.
For example, the young boy who aspires to become a pro-basketball player may develop a strong desire to "be like Mike." He would wear the famous 23 jersey, practice shooting and dunking the ball, and perhaps even pick up mannerisms that he sees when Michael Jordan plays such as the famous "air travel" that he exhibits while shooting.
In another example, a young teen may aspire to internalize the personality characteristics of his grandfather. He adopts his grandfather's work ethic, mannerisms and speech, ways of dealing with people, business acumen, love of sports, or what have you.
In both cases the revered ideal is imitated, but in the latter situation there is also a process of identification that signifies the real work of the ego ideal. This will become clearer as we explore it in greater detail. Let's begin by taking a look at the functions served by the development of the ego ideal, and then discuss what parents can learn from exploring this concept with their children. Following, we'll offer an exercise that assists children in creating and exploring their ego ideal in such a way as to enhance their continued development and make healthy links to their communities.
The Purpose of the Ego Ideal
The emergence of the ego ideal is an important and necessary development during childhood. Around the age of three to four when the child has successfully developed a sense of self that is separate from the parents, there comes with it an automatic and growing awareness of his or her dependency and inferiority in comparison with the abilities, maturity, and even physical stature of the parents. In other words, as young children emerge as individual selves, they also become aware of their smallness and underdevelopment in the hierarchy of human beings. They simply cannot do what adults can do, or what older siblings can do.
Along with that awareness, a desire to reach forward and upward develops. It is this awareness and desire that naturally pushes children to develop and expand, to master developmental tasks, and to move on to the next set of challenges after reaching each goal. The ego ideal comes to represent the child's desire to develop and to become more and better. It is an image of the goal.
The original ego ideal is usually a parent since the younger child's early development is fostered mostly through his or her relationship with the parents. As the child gets older, however, he or she begins to aspire to other models that embody some characteristic or set of characteristics that are deemed to be valuable and necessary. The popularity of biographies among elementary school children is one way this fascination with the ego ideal manifests itself. Other representations are the continual interest and focus on figures in the spotlight such as musicians, entertainers, or sports figures.
Someone's ego ideal may by the current gold medallist in figure skating, a music video star, or a popular movie icon. It could also be an historical figure such as a president, or a religious figure like Mother Teresa. Older teens and even young adults may find their ego ideals in writers, philosophers, and social leaders such as Martin Luther King or Mahatma Ghandi.
Even older adults have ego ideals such as these. Role models closer to home may be people that live within the child's or teen's immediate environment such as family members, friends, teachers, coaches, and so forth. Moreover, the ego ideal will change as children move through various stages of development. As the child matures, the ego ideal will become more realistic in terms of offering functional qualities than can be incorporated into one's life.
What Parents Learn from the Ego Ideal
So the question is "How is the concept of the ego ideal important for parents in raising their children?" For starters, parents can find out a lot about how their children see themselves as well as what they value by discussing with them who their ego ideals are and what they are like. Secondly, the ego ideal provides children a way to stretch their development forward in ways that assist them to find a place within their social environment that both makes use of and shapes their raw talents.
By discussing with children who their ego ideals are, parents help them forge a goal or series of goals they can strive for in a way that captures their imagination and interest. Playing basketball is a lot of fun, but trying to incorporate the perseverance and practice strategies of someone like Michael Jordan provides a way to reach toward a goal, while offering an image of what is possible. Finally, exploring the ego ideal assists children with moving from fantasy toward reality as they move through each of their developmental tasks.
The Move from Fantasy to Reality
The ego ideal, which initially begins with fantastic figures such as superheroes, is modified over time into a representation of someone who is real and who embodies more complex and reality oriented values and characteristics. Aspiring toward the compassion, intellect, bravery, or creativity of real people offers children a way to not only imitate the ego ideal, but to make a real identification that results in the development of the same qualities within the child.
Healthy versus Unhealthy Ego Ideals
The last point is important because it underscores a problem that can occur when children and adolescents aspire toward an ego ideal that is either beyond their reach or that embodies characteristics that are unrealistic or psychologically dangerous. A good example might be the young girl who focuses a great deal of attention and energy toward looking and acting like a supermodel. The ego ideal in this case is probably not realistic, and further is rather one-dimensional with most of the attention centered around narcissistic pursuits like how one looks. Strong attempts to imitate such a role model taken to the extreme could result in unhealthy dieting, precocious sexuality, and ultimately feelings of inferiority when the ideal remains out of reach.
Even more harmful are ego ideals that exemplify antisocial behavior such as gangsta rap stars or substance abusing rock stars. The problems are obvious here and reflect unhealthy trends in the child's individual development that ultimately may lead to self-destructive activity.
Healthier ego ideals will incorporate pro-social internal human qualities that expand one's potentialities from the inside out, and with which one can make a real identification as these qualities are internalized as one's own. By examining our children's ego ideals, we can head off unhealthy pursuits while at the same time encourage and enhance those personality developments that utilize natural talents and help our children to find a productive niche in the larger community.
Exploring the Ego Ideal
To help your children make the most of this developmental aid, and to find out more about his or her values and aspirations, we suggest the following activity. This activity works best with children ages 7 and up, and is adaptable for teens. It can be done between parent and child as well as in the classroom setting.
Announce to your child (class if you're a teacher) that you are going to engage in a short activity that should take about 45 minutes to an hour, and more if you like. Have paper and pencil (or a chalkboard), along with art materials and magazines available.
Introduce the subject by telling your child that you are going to fill up a large piece of paper or poster board with everything that represents who they want to be or be like. Explain that they may use people they know, people they know about (like sports figures), or any pictorial representation they can find in the magazines that express some particular quality or talent. For example, a picture of ballet shoes might fit in with the desire to be a dancer.
As the activity progresses, your job is to facilitate the most detailed composite that can be constructed. In other words, ask a lot of questions to help the child refine every part of the ego ideal. What kinds of characteristics do they have? What are their talents? What are their values? How do they treat other people? What kind of families or friends do they have? How did they get to be who they are?
If the child focuses mostly on people that are not accessible like superheroes, draw their attention toward people within their environment. Ask questions like "Is there anyone you know that you would like be like? Then follow these answers up with "Why?" or "What is it that you like about that person?"
Embellish the project with stories about the people selected. This helps the child to expand the desired qualities into real life situations.
The next step is have the child think about how they might get there. How might the specific characteristics or qualities that stand out be internalized or expressed? This initiates the process of identification and helps the child think about the realistic steps that lie between the wish and desired fantasy. This doesn't mean trying to become the ego ideal, but rather making a solid identification with some of the important aspects of the ideal. For example, if Abraham Lincoln is the role model chosen, the task would be to pinpoint what qualities he represents or stands for and then talk about how to identify with these. In this case it might be that the desired qualities are leadership, fairness, honesty, and so forth. That being the case, who else might the child know that embodies these qualities and how do you cultivate them.
When the project is completed, you can hang the finished product on the wall and revisit it at another time when the ego ideal has changed and a new or enhanced image needs to be constructed. Obviously, for older teens a discussion would work quite well without the added visual aid unless it is something they would like to do. Either way, you will find out a lot about your children as well as help them in their quest for an identity.
Note: The "ego ideal" is not to be confused with the more misguided desire of wishing to be like someone else because we are highly self-critical and unhappy with who we are. The ego ideal should not engender feelings of jealousy or envy or self-criticism, but rather possibility, admiration and expansion. Happy hunting!