I was fourteen years old when I saw Robert eat the baby mouse.
He and his friends found five nearly-naked rodents under a hay bale outside of Midway Junior High and dared each other to eat one. I watched from a distance as Robert excitedly took the dare and collected five dollars for his “courageous” behavior. Even then, I was more repulsed and engrossed by his thought process than by the actual deed. The only thing clear was that he was willing to do most anything for the attention and approval of his peers.
Years later I was working with incarcerated teens, all of whom were committed to at least one year in a residential treatment facility where they were to be “rehabilitated” so as not to be a threat to society. Most of those young men were members of street gangs in Southern California where I had finished graduate school. Sometimes they bragged about their “courageous” acts, most of which involved harming someone physically, economically or emotionally—often all three at once. All of them also struggled with drug addictions ranging from pot to heroine.
I was genuinely surprised that they were so willing to risk things I held dear—freedom, family relations, physical safety—to get a rise out of others. They explained that they were absolutely driven to experience a sense of being respected. But if they couldn’t garner the respect of those around them at least they could induce fear. Nothing would be worse than being insignificant.
But I also noticed that these same young men were terrified by the prospect of things I considered normal, even mundane—giving a talk in church, performing in a school play, or asking a girl on a date. They came to reveal that they considered these activities much riskier than their criminal behavior, and the possibility of failure in those endeavors seemed horrendous. There was a much greater chance they might not be successful in these actions, while their thuggish behavior almost assured they would achieve their short-term objectives.
Suddenly I realized these young men weren’t courageous; they were motivated by fear.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but willingness to take a known risk for something of great value.
How does a child or teen come to have courage, the kind of courage that motivates and enables her or him to make wise, mature choices despite the very real possibility of failure? Most courageous children come from homes where parents and siblings notice and point out successes at least as much as they point out mistakes. Wise parents put effort into “catching their children being good”. They create this family culture because they understand that the behavior that gets noticed gets repeated.
Actual performance is often less important than the fact that a young person attempts to do something of value. In the end it may be much more significant that your child tried out for a team than that he made the final cut. Your daughter’s willingness to reach out to another child who lacks friends is ultimately much more courageous and virtuous than being among the most popular. Adults who sincerely express appreciation for these courageous acts are more likely to see them repeated.
So why do we so easily become fixated by performance and accidentally discourage our kids by noticing their mistakes or pointing out how they might have done it better? We adults can sometimes get caught up in our own cycles of discouragement with our teens and children. We might be so fearful of our child experiencing pain or frustration that we highlight the dangers or pitfalls and make it difficult for them to see the benefits in such risks.
So next time you watch a school play, hear a far-from-perfect talk or presentation, or watch teens fumble to develop healthy peer relations keep in mind how much courage it really takes to do those things.
And please be brave enough to encourage the best values, acknowledge efforts to grow, and ignore the lesser mistakes that will not matter in the end.
Michael D. Williams is a licensed psychotherapist, a Marriage & Family Therapist with over 25 years’ experience. Please offer your comments, questions or suggestions at his blog: MichaelWilliamsCounseling.com or you can contact him directly at MichaelWilliams.MFT@gmail.com or 208.360.2365.Share