Sunday, March 27, 2011

Teaching Children Courage

My son, Jacob, hates taking medicine. There are times he needs it. I’ll call him to me and present the medicine. As soon as he sees what’s in my hand, he begins to whine: “I’m afraid!” he cries. But he ends up taking it.

I’m proud of him. The fear doesn’t bother me because, in the end, he does what was difficult for him even though it was difficult for him. That’s what courage is.

Defining Courage

Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the willingness to act in the face of it. It is doing even though there is danger or opposition to doing.

If humility is the mother of all virtues, as has been said, then courage is its father. Humility admits mistakes, looks openly into the mirror of our souls and sees what’s there, sets goals and makes changes.

Courage empowers humility.

It’s easy to be virtuous when nothing challenges your virtue. It’s easy to be true to your convictions at home where everyone shares them. Loving and doing good to the lovable and kind is no challenge at all.

It’s courage, then, that gives sustaining power to those virtues in a public and private context at the moment of challenge or temptation. In other words, raising courageous kids will empower them to be good kids at the very moment it’s most difficult to be good.

3 Parenting Obstacles to Teaching Courage

1. Overprotection

2. Overreaction

3. Overindulgence


Overprotection prevents experimentation and trial and error. If we are overwhelmed as parents by the fear of our kids getting hurt, we just may be raising scared and overly cautious teens and adults.

Don’t do that! Slow down! Don’t run! You might fall! You WILL fall! Careful! Get down from there, you’ll hurt yourself, I said be careful!

Such warnings repeatedly said can, phrase by phrase, diminish the sort of boldness and confidence required for courage.

If courage is the willingness to do what’s right in the face of opposition to doing it, then the nervous hesitation that is the offspring of overprotective parents undermines the very character trait needed to be good in the face of opposition.

Disclaimer: note my use of the prefix, “over” in all 3 parenting obstacles. I am not advocating underdoing protection or reaction or indulgence either! It is the “over-ness” of the action, not the action of itself.


When we constantly overreact as a regular way of dealing with life and kids, we can create a sort of nervousness to act in them. It breeds hesitation, self-doubt and indecisiveness in our children – all counterproductive traits to the development of courage.

When life consists of worrying about how mom or dad or both will react to any given situation, timidity is often the result.

Kids who grow up measuring their behavior, not as a self-conscientious person trying to do what’s right, but as a child afraid to reap the over-reactive wrath or judgment of parents, often carry over that timidity into the rest of their lives.


Failing to set many or any boundaries and limits, wishy-washy commitment to rules and consequences, giving in or otherwise spoiling and overindulging our kids prevents the development of will power and the ability to delay gratification.

It encourages and even plants, waters and fertilizes the soil of selfishness and self-importance and self-indulgence.

But courage requires an outward focus, a willingness to sacrifice what they want and even their own safety for the good of others. Courage, almost by definition, is difficult for the selfish overindulged.

Final Thoughts on Courage

The 19th Century theologian, William Shedd, said it well when he said, “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”

Neither are people.

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