There’s no doubt that we would all like to see courage in kids.
And with the ever-escalating fear in our society, today, courage is going to be an important skill for kids to have, not just as a kid, but as an adult as well.
According to the Kathleen K. Reardon’s article Courage as a Skill, “In business, courageous action is really a special kind of calculated risk-taking. People who become good leaders have a greater than average willingness to make bold moves, but they strengthen their chances of success—and avoid career suicide—through careful deliberation and preparation.”
So how do we raise kids with courage?
How do we teach them to take calculated risks?
Here are 10 great suggestions from Dr. Michele Borba, a globally-recognized educational psychologist on parenting, author of 24 books and speaker whose talks have been viewed by over 1,000,000 people.
Let Them Know It’s Okay to Be Afraid
Many kids think that being courageous means that they can’t be afraid.
Quite the contrary, though.
“It’s to say hello to your fear, and step in front of your fear and do it anyway. When [kids] find themselves capable because we’ve found them capable, when they find their confidence because we found our confidence, when we’ve created that kind of a reality around them, they will be able to step into their fear and conquer it.”
Give Kids the Tools to Face Fears
Dr. Michele Borba describes four different techniques that the military uses to help Navy Seals face their fears during missions. (Remind your kids of that if they give you any pushback about the techniques below.)
The first technique is deep breathing.
Teach your kids to take a slow deep breath, hold it for two seconds and then slowly let it out. You can have them lay on their backs as they do this and let them watch their diaphragm muscle go up and down. This low breathing can have a big impact on anxiety that may be building.
The second technique is a mental rehearsal.
If there’s something that they’re particularly afraid of, have them go through the scenario in their heads, step by step. This will help alleviate anxiety since they’ll know how to handle the situation when it arises.
The third technique Borba describes is “chunking it.”
This is a technique commonly used in business, so this may be familiar to you, already. It simply means that instead of looking at the entire “thing,” break it into chunks. So if your child is nervous about a new day at school, encourage them to just think of one small part. Once they get through that part, then focus on the next part and the next… until, before they know it, the day is over.
The final technique in the toolkit is positive affirmations.
You may automatically think of the Little Engine that Could with the positive affirmation of, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…” But there’s a lot of wisdom in that old cartoon.
Help your child come up with an affirmation for him or herself. Then have them repeat it over and over again before beginning the task (or dreaded event) that he or she is facing.
Model Courage in Your Own Behavior
Your kids are watching you, whether you realize it or not. What fears are you passing on to them?
Dr. LaPointe asks, “What’s the story that we’re telling ourselves and then, out of those stories, what are the stories that we are narrating for our children and the reality that they are being marinated in?”
She points out that the fear-based stories we tell ourselves are often passed down to our children, which then infuse the way they understand the world.
“If, as human beings, we are amassing this longer and longer list of fears the older that we get… then we need to ask ourselves, what’s our story? What’s our programming? What’s happening behind the scenes that we’ve come into all of this? Because we’re making it all up. The mind sees what the mind wants to see.”
That’s why it’s so important to model courage and not live a fear-based life. Your kids need to watch you taking calculated risks and stepping out of your comfort zone.
And talk to your kids about how it feels when you do that!
Through your own example, kids will be more likely to step in front of their own fears and face them.
Talk About Values
According to Borba, “Research finds that kids are more likely be courageous if they believe that their parents expect them to support those in need.”
Talk about what your family values. Things like standing up for people who can’t stand up for themselves, doing the right thing, even when it’s hard, and speaking up.
Speaking up does not mean, for example, standing on the sidelines watching while people need help. This popular meme comes to mind.
Help kids understand that doing the right thing won’t always be easy, but that you always expect that of everyone in your family.
I think that these lines from the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken, articulates this well:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
We all want to protect our kids. But there’s a fine line between helping them and “over-helping” to the point that we’re actually crippling them. (This is fondly referred to as enabling by the way.)
This means letting your kids be in charge of remembering their cleats and explaining to the coach why they have to sit out of practice when they forgot them. (It also means you no longer race home to retrieve them.)
It means letting your kids be in charge of getting homework done without nagging them 100 times to get started. And if they turn in an assignment late because they failed to get it done on time, they’ll be less likely to make that mistake in the future.
Basically, it means that you stop rescuing your kids and start letting them be more in charge of themselves and their responsibilities. And yes, that means you may periodically have to stand by and let them fail. Trust me, they will learn far more from failing than they ever did from you saving them.
Make Bravery an Expectation
I love the story of Spanx founder Sara Blakely, where she says that her normalized failure for her by asking her, each week, how she had failed during the week. He would actually be disappointed if she didn’t fail… because that meant she wasn’t trying anything new.
You can take the same approach to acts of bravery.
Encourage your kids to do something courageous daily, like talking to someone new at school, trying a new activity, or standing up for a classmate. It doesn’t have to be big things.
Then take time, each day, to focus on those moments of courage.
Overcome the “Superman” Myth
When thinking about courageous figures, too many kids turn to their favorite comic book characters.
However, there are so many examples of people in history who changed the world through their quiet bravery.
For example, in 1892, train passenger Homer Plessy refused to sit in the car reserved for African Americans, even after informing the train conductor that he was 1/8 black. Protecting the violation of his 13th and 14th amendment rights, the case, which came to be known as Plessy v. Ferguson, eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.
Though he lost in court, his quiet protect still had a massive impact on the Civil Rights movement.
Bravery doesn’t have to be about being physically tough.
It often is just about standing your ground and doing what’s right. Even if it means you’re doing it alone.
Read or Watch Movies Together About Courage in Kids
There are lots of children’s books that teach kids about what it means to be brave. The Little Engine that Could is a great choice for younger kids (and it demonstrates the power of affirmations!) as is “Courage” by Bernard Waber.
Stand Up for Yourself & Your Friends: Dealing with Bullies & Bossiness and Finding a Better Way by Patti Kelley Criswell is a good pick for older kids.
You can even find examples of it in your favorite movies.
Look at The Blind Side, for example. The popular movie tells the story of Michael Oher, a homeless and traumatized boy who, after being taken in by a wealthy Tennessee family, became an All American football player and first-round NFL draft pick.
It also has many great examples of courage in kids. Michael demonstrates enormous courage when he agreed to attend a private school with students who were primarily white and upper class. He also shows courage when he stops an airbag from hitting S.J. Even Collins shows courage when she leaves the table she was sitting at with her friends and moves to sit with Michael instead, ignoring their questions asking where she’s going.
Encourage Your Kids to Take Baby Steps
Encourage your kids to take baby steps towards facing their fears.
As Dr. LaPointe explains, once your child is settled and regulated, “you begin to challenge them a little bit. Not big challenges, but little tiny baby step challenges, so they have this sense of empowerment in themselves… Like, ‘I was terrified to try out for the wrestling team. But I went and I did it anyway and I made the team!’
And then the big things come after we’ve practiced with all of the baby steps. It’s sort of like we gently, as they take on the next baby challenge, you find them regulated around that, then you take on the next baby challenge, and you find them regulated around that. And then before you know it, we’ve awakened in them a courage, which means they are still afraid, but they will do it anyway.”
Teach Your Kids to Prioritize Safety
Yes, you want to see your kids be courageous. But you don’t want them to be reckless with their safety. Help them understand the importance of taking calculated risks, but talk to them about not putting themselves in harm’s way. If they’re in a situation where someone could get hurt, teach your kids to go for help or call 911.
Most importantly, teach them to trust their instincts when they are in a risky situation.
Summary for Teaching Courage in Kids
In order for kids to grow up and be truly successful, it’s important that they live courageous lives and not be afraid of making bold moves. Fortunately, there are some things you can do, Mom and Dad, to encourage your kids to be brave.
Here are the 10 Ways Parents can Increase Courage in Kids:
- Let Kids Know It’s Okay to Be Afraid
- Give Kids the Tools to Face Fears
- Model Courage in Your Own Behavior
- Talk About Values
- Stop Over-Helping
- Make Bravery an Expectation
- Overcome the “Superman” Myth
- Read or Watch Movies Together About Courage in Kids
- Encourage Your Kids to Take Baby Steps
- Teach Your Kids to Prioritize Safety
What are you doing with your own kids to help them be courageous?
We would love to hear from you!
Just leave your thoughts in the comments below.