Four-year-old Allison stares at the steps of the big slide. She has never climbed a playground slide of this size. Her father pats her gently on the back. "You can do it, Allie. I'll catch you on the way down." Allison climbs the first step and leaves the safety of the earth behind. Both her hands lock tightly on the railing. She looks upward again. Her trembling knees and pounding heart urge retreat, but she doesn't listen.
Gaining strength and confidence with each new step, she climbs to the summit. Her father's reassuring voice draws her attention to the bottom of the slide. She looks down and sees him standing with arms outstretched. "You can do it, Allie. Sit down and push off. I'll be here when you come down." She takes a deep breath, pushes away, and rockets down the slide into the arms of her father. "Let's do it again, Daddy!"
Great accomplishments require courage — overcoming fear to persevere. No real achievement can be made without taking risks or making sacrifices. A courageous response to new experiences will build your child's confidence and inner strength.
When I ask children (and adults) to define courage, they typically insist that courage is not being afraid. They believe that fear is bad. At one school, however, a child declared that courage is "making the decision to do what you know is right." To that definition, I would add, "Even when we are afraid."
The Threads of Courage
The journey to find courage begins at birth. Courage is composed of threads that extend back in time to experiences in early childhood. Each of these traits will continue to gain strength as they grow individually and combine with others. Greater adversity will someday test this fabric and, at these moments, the tapestry will prove itself strong. Here are four key threads of courage:
Willpower. Young children, even babies, show signs of willpower — the determination to achieve a purpose — as they learn and acquire skills each day. For example, a 5 month old strains to touch a colorful mobile of farm animals hanging over her crib. After several unsuccessful tries, she slaps one and sets it spinning.
Vigilance. As he learns vigilance (alertness to danger), your child has a heightened awareness of true risk and its consequences. He notices the presence of danger, envisions potentially tragic consequences, and has developmentally appropriate skills to protect himself or others. A 4 year old, for example, may protect his younger brother by calling his mother's attention to a frying pan on the stove with a dangerously exposed handle. We don't want children to live in fear, but we don't want them to be fearless either. Courage is learning to be smart about danger, not foolishly reckless.
Composure. Composure is the ability to self-regulate emotion — to think instead of panicking in response to a threat. Composure begins during preschool as your child begins to gain control over her temper tantrums and other intense emotions. Composure gives her "heart" as she gazes upward before climbing the stairs to a new school for the first time or entering a group of new children.
- Caring. This trait invests courage with the potential for later heroism. True heroism is courage elevated by nobility. When your child learns to care for others, he learns to respect others and make sacrifices to reduce their distress. For example, a toddler might tuck his teddy bear next to his sick mother while she sleeps.
Can Courage Be Taught?
Courage is something that is built through experience over time. You serve as a guide and have the opportunity to demonstrate perseverance, problem solving, and empathy — necessary elements of courage. Of course, you want to protect your child from danger, but hardship and adversity will inevitably be part of their lives. Prepare her to stand up for herself and make smart choices when faced with difficult situations — even when you are not able to lend a supporting hand or whisper an encouraging word.
Stand for what is important. All children want their parents to be their heroes. This means standing up for what is important by setting good examples and maintaining reasonable limits. How we react if our child comes home with a bloody lip after being pushed by a bully or if he wakes up from a nightmare makes a difference in his character. Talk about your values. Read great stories that emphasize the values you want your children to learn. Help your child develop an inner compass.
Provide power moments. Be sure that your child has reasonable opportunities to succeed. Challenge him to do something safe, but difficult, and provide just enough encouragement for him to do it well. Ask your 3 year old, for example, to safely put away a plastic water bottle in the refrigerator.
Protect without smothering. Yes, we have to be vigilant for our children's safety. We also have to know when to let go and encourage them to manage reasonable risk on their own. Invite children to use their senses to promote an awareness of their environment, which is crucial to evaluating risk, and to form empathy. For example, a child who intervenes when another child is being bullied is tuned in to many things in his surroundings.
Acknowledge your child's fear and help her confront it. Fear is a healthy emotion when it protects. Allow your child to experience fear without shame. Make what frightens her an object of study. Encourage her to experience success by approaching a fear gradually, one safe step at a time.
- Make an investment of time. Become part of your child's memories. Together, have "breakfast" with his stuffed animals, build roads with trucks in the sandbox, and play soccer in the backyard. Do things with him, not just for him.