It’s important that we grow brave children. We want kids who are happy to take risks physically, emotionally and intellectually. There are good reasons for that….Brave kids are going to be the ones who find out early what their strengths and weaknesses are, what they love and loathe. They can use that knowledge powerfully in their learning and growing. If they are armed with that knowledge, then they are more likely to create a life they love. They are also going to be the students who take learning risks that lead to lateral, out of the box thinking. The world needs that kind of thinker.
What is bravery?
It is hard to separate ‘bravery’ from determination, persistence, perseverance and self-belief. Bravery is tied to all these things. It is about taking risks; taking on challenges; feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Bravery is not the absence of fear. Sometimes when we talk to our kids we say, “Be brave” and “Face your fears”. This implies that fear is something to be ashamed of. It isn’t. Fear is okay and to be expected, but it also needs to be overcome. That won’t just happen by magic. It comes with modelling, teaching and explaining.
Finding the edge
Teenagers are by nature impulsive so they need some guidance in finding the line between safe risk-taking and just plain risk-taking. They make a lot of decisions with the part of the brain committed to emotions, called the amygdala. Adults make decisions with the rational part of the brain…usually. So when I say we should encourage kids to take risks, they need to be discussed and planned. The risks I’m talking about are calculated.
Children need to be taught how to control what they can, and to always have a healthy respect for boundaries and Mother Nature. School camps that are substantial, well prepared and challenging are the perfect vehicle for this type of learning. They are structured, they explicitly teach skills and they allow for lots of little successes. These ongoing successes are reinforcing and powerful.
Kids are more capable than you think
When teachers take kids on camps we are always surprised by what they are capable of. Though we are never as surprised as they are. Watching a thirteen-year-old girl abseiling down a sheer cliff is wonderful, nearly as wonderful as seeing the smile that doesn’t leave her face for hours. That’s the face of triumph. Obviously, it’s not all about adrenaline sports. It is equally as exciting to see a teenager perform in her first dance showcase in front of a large audience, standing up to a bully for the first time, or nailing a public speaking task. Those are the memories that will inform our kids’ futures. They are the “I can do it” moments.
Does fear feel a lot like excitement?
Fear is a physical response designed to keep us safe. The problem is when it becomes confused with excitement. Some children have very sheltered lives. They have experienced a lot of joy but not a lot of excitement. Therefore, when they do feel it they get a bit wary. We need to talk to them about the physical feelings of excitement…fluttering in the stomach, a raised pulse, dilated pupils but no feeling of doom. Explain also that a little bit of fear in a controlled situation is healthy.
Santa Maria College Psychologist, Jane Carmignani says that positive talk is important. It creates a positive internal dialogue. “If you could get into the minds of brave people, you wouldn’t find someone who is thinking, ‘This is too hard; I can’t do this; there is no way I can do this’ – it would be, ‘Yes! C’mon! I can do this!’. What we tell ourselves can be very powerful when it comes to risk assessment and taking. Luckily parents and teachers can model this, it is teachable.”
Model safe risk taking
Children learn their boundaries by watching their parents and significant adults. Teach your children to judge the inherent risks of a sport or any other adventure. Take any necessary precautions and then have a go. I remember well a colleague who was going to be involved in an adventure camp we were planning for Year 7 girls. She privately went off and got a trainer to help her prepare. She knew that if we were going to ask the girls to climb and abseil, then she would need to model capable, brave behaviour. She was at the edge of her comfort zone and she did it anyway. She also wasn’t afraid to talk about her planning and preparation. The girls loved her for it, and so did I. Jen is an inspiring teacher who leads from by your side.
Talk about failure
There would be no ‘risk’ in safe risk taking if you couldn’t fail. Failure is a great learning tool. Rather than just allowing them to feel failure, ensure that you analyse it with children. Ask them to assess the importance, consequences and gravity of their failures. Keep it in perspective and encourage them to have another go if that’s possible. Children are more likely to take future risks if they see a value in both succeeding and failing.
Take off the bubble wrap
Unfortunately, we are a very fearful society. As a result, our children tend to be very scheduled and protected. The reality is that for kids to learn bravery, they need to be given some freedom. If they are armed with good information and strategies for coping when things go wrong, they are going to be okay. They will also learn more about their own capabilities. Sometimes this is challenging for parents because they also have to face their own fear and let go of control. There is a rising trend for parents to exclude their children from camps and Outdoor Education. Please don’t rob your kids of these enormous growth opportunities.
Does gender matter?
Physical bravery is often seen as a male trait, so it is encouraged from a young age. But we disadvantage our kids and limit their potential if we don’t develop in both genders all sorts of bravery. All kids need physical, emotional and intellectual bravery. Do you encourage your daughter to do broggies on her bike, hit the skate ramp hard or do backflips into the pool? Is your son expected to engage in conversations that are emotionally challenging? Does he know how to chat with adults or introduce new people to one another? Does he have to ask for help or admit he doesn’t understand? Gender certainly isn’t everything, but there may be subtle differences in expectations that you haven’t thought about before.
All kids are different. The comfort zone is huge for some, small for others. The object of fear varies. Some kids have swagger, some kids pretend to have swagger. The challenge is to find for each child, the space just beyond comfort but not deep into fear…the space where learning and growing flourish.
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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single-sex and co-ed. Currently, she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia.