Growing Character: Teaching Children About Courage
Written by Jody McVittie, M.D.
Filed under: Parenting
Do superheroes have courage?
I’d say, “Absolutely!”
But if you ask superheroes in our community how they achieved what they did, courage will probably not be among the first words they utter. Instead they would be likelier to tell you that they just did what was “right,” or that they are just being themselves.
We often think of courage as big — as something that is perhaps lacking in our own makeup. That’s because courage looks different from the outside than it feels from the inside. Interesting, isn’t it? From the outside, the work that superheroes do looks courageous. From the inside it feels like “just being me.”
Perhaps our confusion results from how we hold the word courage. The word itself is derived from the Latin cor, meaning heart. Maybe courage isn’t as much about heroism as it is about moving in the direction of becoming our best selves: to be connected, contributing members of our community. Sometimes that might manifest as a heroic rescue, or a bold and daring act. Most of the time, though, courage is quieter. Courage is welcoming a new neighbor, cooking soup for a friend who is sick, cleaning up the traffic circle, speaking out when a friend is being taunted or hurt, sharing your sandwich with a friend at school who forgot her lunch or picking up garbage not because you dropped it but because it is the right thing to do.
Courage is a heart word. ... In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant 'To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart.' Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences — good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as 'ordinary courage.'
Because courage can be quiet, we tend to underrate or overlook our own acts of courage. I frequently work with teachers who can easily identify courage in their students, but fail to recognize the kind of courage it takes to show up every day in the classroom, eager to share knowledge but expecting that there will be unanticipated obstacles that will make sharing knowledge both challenging and rewarding.
Where do you see courage, in yourself and in others? How can we help our children understand what courage looks and feels like?
Here are some tips for teaching your children about courage:
Help them see their own courage. When you see courage in your children, identify it. “It took courage to stand up for yourself like that.” “It sounds like you did the right thing even though it wasn’t easy. That is what we call courage.”
Make a family practice of connecting and contributing. Plan a short activity that gives back each week. Children have fun doing this as a secret. They can deliver flowers anonymously to a neighbor’s doorstep, take a short clean-up walk around the block or write a note of appreciation to a teacher or friend.
Self-reflect in the presence of your children. “At work today I heard someone say, ‘That is so gay.’ I like this person, but didn’t like what they said. It was the first time I’ve been able to stop and let someone else know that I thought the comment was hurtful.”
Model doing what is right for you, even when it isn’t popular with your child.
“Mom, can I stay over at Liz’s house?”
“Will her parents be home in the evening?”
“Nooo…! No one does that anymore!”
“Well, I do. I trust you, and I think it is important for parents to be home when there are friends over.”
About the author
Jody McVittie, MD is the executive director and cofounder of Sound Discipline, a local nonprofit dedicated to teaching people to do the right thing, even when no one is looking. Sound Discipline works with schools and families in the Puget Sound Community. Read more about encouraging courage.