Nurturing Courage in Children

A few months ago, my youngest son surprised me with a decision to run for a student council position in his elementary school.  If you knew him, you’d understand my reaction: Of all my children, he is the most cautious and hates to be the center of attention.  He enjoys putting himself out there in the world and being a strong competitor….when he securely feels he can be successful and won’t be embarrassed by the outcome in anyway.  I refrained from questioning his decision and instead focused on supporting him to design creative posters and prepare a speech all while still being nervous about the outcome and his eventual reaction if he lost.

On the day of the speeches, all the anxious parents, including myself, were present in the audience trying to contain our emotions and appear calm for the sake of our children.  I sat there in amazement listening to my son and the seven other children present themselves with confidence, intelligence, and maturity.  All the candidates went even further to encourage and support their competitors in a way I wish our current politicians could do….but that is a story for another time.  Later that day, I found myself baking some cookies awaiting my son to return from school in hopes to help him recover from any disappointment after the election.  Much to my surprise, he came home full of pride that he had won.  I found myself feeling proud and embarrassed all at the same time.  Why was I so convinced that he would lose?  Why was I so mentally focused on helping him get over his disappointment?  Why as a mother was I so afraid he would feel hurt or rejected?

As a parent, we develop protective, nurturing instincts for our children from the moment they are born.  We work hard to anticipate their every need and struggle to let them cry or feel any pain or hunger.  Naturally, one of the hardest aspects of parenting is learning when to let go and let our children begin to experience the highs and lows of life.  Part of our job as a parent is to help our children learn to be courageous to live life on their own terms and develop resiliency to manage the outcomes.

  • After exploring my own thoughts and reactions, I tried to figure out why my son decided to take on something so outside his comfort zone.  He naturally gave me a look of annoyance and simply stated that he “felt like it.”  Fear of failure never crossed his mind….just my own.  The formal definition of courage is mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.  It is the ability to follow your heart, let go of the familiar, and persevere in the face of adversity.  In a sense, to know courage, you must also know fear.  I began to think about how as a parent and therapist I can help children be courageous and not focus on their fears.
  • Point out examples of courageous people and acts. There are plenty of examples—in both famous and familiar people—with which children can identify.
  • Set an example for them.  Go first and challenge yourself to take on your own fears.
  • Help them take risks. Be a part of the process to encourage their abilities and don’t let your own fears get in their way.
  • Celebrate acts of courage in both your child and yourself.  Life is about the journey and not just the outcome.  Their effort to succeed alone is worth acknowledging.
  • Above all else, resist the urge to rescue them.  Remember that losing is not failure but an opportunity to learn both mentally and emotionally about an experience.

If we as parents can learn to manage our own emotions and fears, we can better help our children discover their own path in life and find the courage to succeed no matter what the outcome.

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