Fostering Character Development in Teens: Courage, pt 2

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James WellbornLeave a Comment

Notice it.  What you characterize as courageous is important.  Who you consider to be heroic is important.  Again, while heroism is the easiest to spot it is the least relevant to helping your kid be courageous in their everyday life.  Heroism is rare by definition.  Courage is all around you.  It is on the news.  It is in your house.  So keep an eye out for stories about real people doing real quietly courageous things.  “You know what I heard on the radio driving home . . .”  “I saw this woman actually stand up to a guy who was threatening this little kid today.  That took real courage.”

But, especially, notice courage in your kid.  You’ll probably have to start with small instances of courage.  Standing up to an older sibling.  Asking questions of an intimidating teacher.  Trying something new despite being worried they may fail or look foolish.  Talking in front of a group.  Performing at a recital or competition.  Taking a risk for something they really want to do like jumping off the high dive.  (You have to be careful about this one because they may do drugs or have sex “because they want to” even though they are afraid.  Probably not the exemplar to use for quiet courage.)

Then there are more significant examples of teenage courage:
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  • A shy kid trying to be more social because they are tired of fear keeping them lonely and isolated.
  • A physically cautious kid who plays football while feeling dread every day of practice.
  • Asking someone out on a date.
  • Your kid telling you they are gay despite fearing you won’t accept it (or them).
  • Daring to speak your heart to your true love when you don’t know if they feel the same.
  • Any time you live your principles (because the only time principles matter is when it costs you to stand by them).
  • Continuing to try despite failing.
  • Walking down the hallway every day of school when there are kids harassing or bullying them.

Teach it.  So how do you teach courage?  It requires a couple of different qualities that together lead to courageous actions in kids.  First, your kid will need to know the difference between right and wrong.  You know, using morals and personal values as a guide to life and actions.  “This just isn’t right.”  “I really don’t feel comfortable with this.”  Teach your kid to recognize when things are unfair, immoral, cruel, wrong, insensitive or dangerous.  Teach them to trust their instincts about right and wrong (and how to follow these instincts).

Another quality is a courageous imagination (a parallel to what Zimbardo referred to as heroic imagination in his discussion of heroism).  Kids will need your help envisioning themselves as courageous.  (See Notice it, Expect it, Encourage it and Anticipate it sections.)  This is specific place where story telling cans come into play.  When your kid identifies with a courageous character in stories (or members of the family), they carry with them a vision of being brave and doing courageous, even heroic, things.

Courageous kids manage and overcome their fears.  Courage does not occur except in the presence of fear.  But, feeling afraid does not stop courageous kids from acting.  It will be important to help your kid learn how to manage fear (not deny it, not tough it out).  This is best achieved by encouragement and helping them approaching fearful situations step by step.  “You walked slowly out rather than running screaming from the room?  Excellent!”  Mastering fear in one situation will lead to their using the same skill in other fearful situations.  Consider doing scary but fun things as a family to help everyone learn how you can be afraid and still have fun.  Consider repeating the activity multiple times so that the fear begins to decrease (which gives them an example of how to overcome fear).

Courageous kids feel a personal responsibility to take action.  Humans are remarkably good at using excuses to avoid doing things.  Your kid will need to learn how to think for themselves (and not shrink from hard choices).  Courageous people do not wait for others to tell them what is needed or required.  Help your kid to see themselves as a person who needs to act to right a wrong or follow their personal moral code.  Help them recognize when action is needed in the service of others at risk.  “If not you, who?  If not now, when?”  You can start with a side-along strategy:  “Come on, you and I need to do something about this.”  Have them practice helping people in need when it isn’t dangerous.  That can help build the habit.

Expect it.  Be explicit in telling your kids that you expect them to have the courage to do the right thing even when it is difficult; especially when it is difficult.  “If that was you, I’d expect you to stand up to them and not back down.”  “When you see someone in that situation, you better be in there trying to help.”

Express it.  Talk about courage.  Bring it up in conversation.  Use phrases like: courage of your convictions, things worth standing up for, it’s the right thing to do and, more cautiously, worth dying for.

Encourage it. How you encourage your kid to be courageous is important.  Start by nudging them to consider being courageous.  “Do you think you should do something about that?”  “What can you do about that?”  Then, be more direct.  “I think you should say something to them about that; even though it is risky.”  “If you think it is wrong, you should do something about it regardless of what others may say.”  “Don’t let anyone keep you from following your dream.”  Or, be very direct.  “Get out there and help them out.”  “Don’t just stand there.”  “Come on, we need to do something about this now.”

Be careful about fostering courage in a quiet, shy kid.  Keep in mind that courage is not only something done in a forceful and dramatic way (something that is difficult for cautious kids).  It can also be done indirectly and in what you refuse to do.  Think of the people who sheltered people destined for the Nazi concentration camps or the Rwandan Hutu who risked their lives to protect their Tutsi neighbors from the genocide.  There is a full range of courageous actions that your kid can accommodate to their own personality style or disposition.

Anticipate it.  “There will come a time . . .”  “I know you will act with courage if ever . . .”  “When the time comes, I know you will be a person who . . .”  Help them see how courage will be a part of who they are as an adult.

Guilt it.  Some Character-istics are best not fostered by guilt induction.  Courage is one of those.  Talking to a kid about being disappointed because they didn’t show compassion or honor or responsibility can motivate them to do better next time.  Courage, though, has such a tricky relationship to the perception of weakness and cowardice (see below) that it is better to not use guilt as a way of fostering this Character-istic in your kid.  If you do, be very, very gentle with it.  “Maybe next time you get the chance you will be ready to help out.”  “It is really hard to take a big risk like that.  I’m glad there are people who can do that when the need arises.”

Repeat it.  Same as always.  Bring it up over and over again.

A word about cowardice.  Before ending this discussion of courage, a few words need to be said about cowardice.  Many people consider cowardice to be the opposite of courage.  And, indeed, it is useful to discourage a lack of courage as well as encourage courageous actions by your kid.  Unfortunately, talking about a lack of courage as cowardice can be easily twisted by naïve and impressionable kids.  They have a tendency to view courage as “not weak” rather than as overcoming fear to do what’s right.  They may then start tossing out a number of really important qualities because they are associated with being weak (e.g., gentle, cooperative, thoughtful, prudent).  To avoid your kid believing that courage is just about reckless risk taking (without purpose and needlessly dangerous) or being tough and unfeeling, keep courage focused on nobility of purpose (i.e., freedom, justice, opposing tyranny) and in the service of others (i.e., love, protecting the defenseless, rescuing the imperiled, saving the endangered).  Like other forms of name calling, it is important to call your kid the names you want them to be (i.e., courageous, brave, heroic) rather than the ones you are afraid they may become (i.e., cowardly, villainous).

Next week:  Generosity

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