Timmy buzzed around my consulting room, playing Superman. Faster than a speeding bullet he rescued the doll family that he’d earlier tied up with some string. In the sand tray he intervened to prevent the marauding dinosaurs from stomping on the farm animals that waited anxiously for their hero to arrive. After performing an emergency operation on the toy bear, he flopped down onto the floor and said wistfully, “Where’s the real Superman when I really need him?”
Timmy, the courageous conqueror of crime, dinosaurs and illness, the hero of the hour, had been referred to me because he was scared all the time. He had nightmares, struggled to separate from his mom when he had to go to school and worried constantly about bad things happening. He was particularly afraid of swimming in the pool – he said his brain told him sharks didn’t live in swimming pools, but his heart and tummy couldn’t believe his brain.
In the course of play therapy my aim was to help Timmy face and manage his fears. To do this he would have to find his own inner superhero. SuperTimmy would have to demonstrate courage – defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the ability to disregard fear”. Courage, also known as bravery, valour, tenacity and pluck, is not recklessness or fearlessness. Courage is informed by fear and able to learn from fear. Courage is doing what you know is right even when it’s not easy. Charles A. Smith, an American educator, points out that “courage finds its roots in two fundamental skills learned in early childhood – persevering despite adversity and remaining mindful despite fear”.
So how do we teach our children to be brave? Firstly we need to model being brave and proud of our own moments of courage. We also need to teach children to persevere. We can encourage this by praising and rewarding effort, focusing less on the outcome of a project than on the process. In order to teach mindfulness in spite of fear we can provide scaffolding – small amounts of support and reassurance to help children move gradually through increasingly anxiety-provoking situations. The parent’s support and soothing words help the child calm down enough to manage fear. Over time the child learns to calm himself down, so the ability to self-soothe is internalised. Current research suggests that this is a result of the strengthening of those brain pathways that manage stress.
As well as offering appropriate support, we can also help our children develop confidence by “letting go”. In her excellent book on parenting, Letting Go as Children Grow, Deborah Jackson, a British writer, points out that while children need adult support, they do not need interference, which can damage their growth. If we learn to trust our children at each stage, they are more likely to find their own courage. When parents do a little less there is the likelihood that children will feel freer to do a lot more.
One way in which parents can build children’s confidence and courage is to think about the challenge offered to parents by Gever Tulley of The Tinkering School in Southern California. Before you ask why, here are five dangerous things he says you should get your child to do:
- Play with fire
- Have a pocket knife
- Take things apart
- Drive something
- Throw things and skim stones
We live in a dangerous world. So why on earth encourage our kids to do more dangerous things? Tulley reckons that we need to learn about our own power and potency. We do this by learning about the world and how and why things happen, its causes and effects, and by experimenting with the limits of our physical capacities. We must have the experience of being in control. Of course all of the above activities MUST be carried out under responsible adult supervision, with guidance, support, and yes, scaffolding.
Allowing kids to explore and use tools encourages creativity, independence and a desire to learn. We risk having societies turn into sterile systems, where dirt, trees and appliances are taken away from kids, together with marvellous opportunities to learn by playing!
As parents we can tell our kids that fire is dangerous and useful, but until you actually build a fire, “play” with it, cook something on it, and learn to control it and put it out, you haven’t learned about fire. In reality our children will do dangerous things whether we like it or not. If they are forced to do so secretly without your help and supervision (not interference), they are more likely to hurt themselves. Children are more at risk if they have not had guided experiences with danger.
I thought of other things our Superboys and Supergirls should be encouraged to try as we watch them learning to be brave:
- Climb things, especially trees
- Jump off and over things
- Taste new foods
- Act in a play
- Make a new friend
- Go on a ride at a funfair
- Say what you feel
- Play in the mud
- Risk failure
- Sing loudly
Perhaps it’s not only the parents who allow their children to run wild who are a problem. It’s also the parents that won’t let their children run at all.