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If we want courageous adults, we have to raise courageous children

Edited version of an article first published by Aleteia.

All parents want what’s best for their children. That may include sending them to the best schools, giving them quality clothes and healthy food, and other good and worthy things that can depend on our budget. One thing we should all want for our children, and which is totally independent of money, is virtue: the habit of putting good values into practice.

One of the many virtues we need to help them cultivate is courage. Often when we think of this virtue, we think of grown-up examples. However, grown-up heroes and everyday courageous adults don’t come out of nowhere. They start as courageous children. That’s right: kids can practise this virtue too.

Children are brave when they go beyond their fears to do what is right, or what is being asked of them for their personal growth, or take responsibility for their actions, knowing they may face unpleasant consequences.

How can we teach children to practise this virtue? First of all, through example. Our kids need to see that we do things we don’t want to do, even things that scare us, if we know that they are necessary, or at least that the potential benefits for ourselves or our family outweigh the risks.

Second, we need to teach them to put their fears into perspective. As they grow up, we can help them distinguish between objective dangers and subjective fears, which are often irrational. It’s rational to fear an aggressive dog, for example, but not rational to be afraid of the dark.

Such reasonings won’t necessarily make the fear go away, but can help the child to exercise willpower to walk down the dark hallway to the bathroom despite the fear, for example.

We should also teach our kids how to be motivated—and the greatest motivation for courage is love. Love engenders heroism: love for people, such as our family and friends; love for our country; even healthy love for ourselves, wanting to be the best we can be.

Love is best taught through experiencing it and, again, by example. It’s not the only motivation for courage, but it’s often the most powerful one.

Of course, it’s easier to be courageous when we feel supported and accepted, in both success and failure. If we encourage our children to push their boundaries in good ways, they should experience the rewards of success, and if they fail, they should receive our encouragement and understanding.

When they are bravely honest and own up to having done something wrong, we should show our appreciation for their sincerity, and perhaps lighten the punishment so they feel the reward of honesty in a very concrete way.

We should also teach them to trust in God’s guidance and help; if we are pursuing virtue and trying to do the right thing, we can count on Divine Providence. Not that God will always give us the success that we are looking for, but that He will give us the help we need to achieve what He asks of us, however greater or lesser, or just plain different, from our own expectations.

We also have to stand back and let them take the (reasonable) risks of growing up and living a healthy, active life. We cannot be constantly protecting them from every possible minor danger or discomfort.

Scraped knees, failed classroom presentations, less than stellar sports performance are the necessary price of striving to grow and overcome personal limitations and fears.

If we teach our children the values of sincerity, truth, and justice, they will find countless opportunities, at home and at school, to be courageous. For example:

  • Jumping into the swimming pool as asked by a swimming instructor, even when afraid of the water or of the height of the diving board
  • Not allowing a classmate to be subjected to bullying
  • Going to the teacher to tell her that they have broken a windowpane, even though they know it might cost them a scolding (at school and at home)
  • When they see that their peers are misbehaving, instead of going along with them, they stick to the rules, or leave, or might even try to convince the others to stop
  • If our children show that they are brave enough to be honest, to defend what is right, to stand up for the weak, and to go outside their comfort zone (even if they fail), that is truly something to be proud of!