On the last day of sixth grade one humid June, I practiced my ballet turnout while waiting in line for the cafeteria’s lunch. I felt good and nervous about the recital at 6:30 that night. Our group of multi-shaped eleven and twelve-year-olds had been drilling first, second and fifth positions for months at Ms. Cheryl’s Dance School in Annapolis, MD. This was the evening that we could finally put on Mom’s lipstick and blush, stretch out our glittery costumes and bow to the hundreds of adoring parent-sibling fans.
Flash forward to the stage lights sending heat on my made-up face: it was hard to concentrate. I kept thinking about not messing up. I tried to picture if my crush were in the audience, and then missed another step because his face was so cute. My smooth, easy practicing disintegrated.
This past Christmas my Mom gave me a DVD of our performance. Her dedication spanned over many years, as the dance school moved and then it became harder and harder to track down the videographer. Her gift was touching and filled with loving service and time. As I watched, I saw how painfully nervous I was, how much I failed to enjoy the work of the dance. My eyes were dilated, my visage was counting out steps in her head, and the moves were stilted and scared.
Then very recently, I remembered how I had strep throat that day and weekend. I looked back at my Twelve-Year-Old Heart and said, “You had tremendous courage to stand and dance, in illness and fear. You didn’t run away. You stayed put and saw the dance out. Great job, little girl!”
I’ve endured many nervous moments since that day; some of them in which I gave up and ran, but these events were needed. To own courage you have to know what it feels like to be frightened. Being the parent of an energetic, wild hearted three-year-old son has taught me the arduous, fulfilling, passionate work of overcoming fearlessness. Through teachable mistakes, humility, and boldness leading to joyful experiences, toddler care taking has helped direct our family to better understand bravery.
Merriam Webster says courage is “mental or moral strength, to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear.”
It’s easy to view strength as purely physical. We lift our son into the air constantly, his energy at night sometimes needs steady holding until my arms turn to jelly, and chasing and playing are an all-day affair. But it’s nice to steep in the mental and moral strength image. Mental strength takes training and mostly, failure. In order to push through hardship, the mistakes must happen. Even when your body is tapped out, courage takes your mind to a place of confident rest. Beginning with the ability to walk, small children exhibit this skill in droves.
Laura A. Jana’s book, “The Toddler Brain: Nurture the Skills Today that Will Shape Your Child’s Tomorrow,” tackles this issue. In the chapter about the skill called WOBBLE, i.e., experimentation and adaptability in making mistakes, the author notes:
“Being able to WOBBLE yet remain standing, in a figurative sense, represents a crucial ability today. Simply put, we need to embrace the risk of making mistakes and trying to accomplish new feats that are beyond our current capacities. In every type of organization and every endeavor, we recognize now more than ever the need for people who are willing to try out all sorts of new and daring ideas, falter, fail, and bounce back up, wiser and more resilient than before.”
When our little guy turned three, daredevil stunts multiplied. On top of this, he hatched a fearless social personality in which everyone encountered was a friend. This scared me more than most things, because I’m always concerned with relationships and didn’t want him to catch my neuroses. Yet I learned through thrown toys, arguments, mean words, and parent tantrums that he would be just fine and needed to experience these things on some level to grow. Parenting with this awareness helped me to realize that I also need unkind words and mean people to help me cement value despite outside opinions. Gaining this comprehension helps me to give our son the freedom he needs to make physical, mental and moral mistakes in order to uncover character-building jewels in the long run.
Research professor and author Brené Brown promotes this type of thinking. In a 2013 interview by The Huffington Post she ties in vulnerability as a vital aspect of courage:
“I think the first thing we have to do is figure out what’s keeping us out of the arena. What’s the fear? Where and why do we want to be braver? Then we have to figure out how we’re currently protecting ourselves from vulnerability. What is our armor? Perfectionism? Intellectualizing? Cynicism? Numbing? Control? That’s where I started. It’s not an easy walk into that arena, but it’s where we come alive.”
Pinpointing areas of fear’s struggle helps to illuminate what we need. Knowing that I give the audience too much control when presenting an idea behind a podium allows me to learn to give them less control. That’s a great first step. Are our kids puffing themselves up, withdrawing or disappearing because of a fear? What’s behind it? How can we help them here?
The other side of courage’s definition is withstanding danger and fear. Though the “fake-it-to-make-it” attitude has some benefits, humility is an excellent way to adopt courage. Learning constantly and teach ability are two things toddlers thrive at. As adults, bowing down to the powers of the world that keep it together (God, love, community, etc.), we can forsake arrogance for wonder. Important questions like, “How did that person get there?” instead of “Why don’t I have what she has?” really make a difference. In “Learning How To Read and Write,” an excerpt from Fredrick Douglass’s work “Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, An American Slave Written by Himself,” readers are touched by the writer’s unpretentious drive to learn how to use the English language despite his position as a slave in early 19th-century America. In this quote he discusses his quest for knowledge at a young age:
“The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When I was sent to errands, I always took my book with me, and by doing one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return.”
This was dangerous work, and Douglass sought out help where he could find it. When children, particularly the 1-to-4 set, ask for help and explore with their natural abilities they learn to take risks instead of hanging back in fear. Our privilege as parents is to encourage kids and adults in this!
Finally, courage is employed by joy. There needs to be a dangling carrot, a rainbow, a hope to keep us all going. Furrowed brows of concentration lead to wide smiles of discovery. When our 3-year old began to push himself more on the playground, his face lit up after feeling new weightlessness down a larger slide. As I thought about the joy of sharing love and life with other people, public speaking and performance became a delight. What is your joy? What is your child’s joy? Knowing these two things produces a solid background for heroic acts.
We tend to see heroic acts as necessarily large and public, but who else will wipe that snotty nose or let one more rebellious act slide without losing a temper? What unseen beauty in raising a person who has tremendous fortitude and compassion appears? Learning courage with your children is a priceless gift. It takes tears, broken bones, and pain, but it offers joyful, humble, well-earned life in return.
- Recall a time when you pushed through a terrifying, or at least nerve-wrecking experience. Take a deep breath, and remember it with all of your senses. What emotions come up? Anger? Sadness? How can you give yourself grace and forgiveness in that moment?
- What scares you about your child, and about raising him or her? Does it relate to your own childhood on any level?
- What are some ways that you can depend on your community to help you and your children increase courage?
- Talk with your spouse and/or children about some things that bring deep joy to each person. Write those things in a journal or on a sheet somewhere, and place it in a safe place to keep.
- Find a story of courage that you admire, and let it encourage you without making you feel inadequate. Michael Gervais’s podcast has a library of these types of stories, and Sue Austin’s Ted Talk about deep-sea diving in a wheelchair promises to stir boldness.
- Take the time to compliment someone in your life about something brave they have done, faced, or been a part of.
- Take one scary thing about parenthood or your child, and walk straight into it. For example, if you worry about negative experiences with a certain sport, sign your children up to try it or participate in a pickup game. Fail eagerly.
- On the weekend, take your family and do something fun and spontaneous. Don’t have a to-do-list or fret about anything involved. Just go and enjoy yourself.