When a child has fallen and scraped their knee, the adult on hand usually praises them “you’re so brave” – even if they do cry.
When a child is facing a fear, perhaps about to slide down a pole at the playground for the first time, we’ll often coax them to do it by telling them to “be brave”.
Of course, we’re meaning to be supportive and to encourage the child when we say these things, but let’s think about the messages our words are really giving them –
* what you feel is a problem.
* do not show the way you really feel – pretend if you have to.
The Short- Term Problem
When our children are encouraged to feign bravery rather than be honest about their feelings, it tells them that they cannot come to us with all of their emotions, certain ones have to be kept neatly tucked way, out of sight.
But, if they can’t come to us, the adults in their lives, when they are fearful or in pain, who are they going to go to?
After being told to “be brave” often enough, they may eventually conclude that it’s best to avoid putting themselves in any situation where they’ll potentially experience pain or fear – because there will be no real support for them and the adults around them will likely disapprove of their feelings. In trying to avoid pain and fear, they avoid the fullness of Life also.
The Long-Term Problem
If our kids learn that they must “be brave” as children, they will take that belief with them into adulthood. Concerned with appearing brave, they risk becoming one of the emotionally disengaged adults we meet all too frequently. They may even use negative behaviours to avoid their emotions in order not to let slip how they’re really feeling.
Most of us can probably think of a number of people we’ve met who are distant. There’s a feeling that their walls are up and they’re hard to connect with or develop a meaningful relationship with. So we don’t usually bother. If we do have a relationship with them, communication is difficult and frustration is high – for both parties.
When I was at university, I did an assignment on friendship. I learned that personal disclosure is the number one way people make and deepen friendships, including disclosure of emotions – the good and the bad.
We want our children to be emotionally available to the people in their lives so that they can enjoy rich relationships. Being honest about difficult feelings is a life skill that helps them to do this. But they have no way of learning how to do this if they are told to “be brave” whenever they’re in pain or fear.
Of course, not every “be brave” is going to make a child risk-adverse and turn them into an emotionally distant adult who leans on destructive behaviours to help them avoid their feelings. But I want to be intentional in my response to a child’s pain and fear, to make sure I am giving them the support they really need. We can teach our children that all feelings are normal, even uncomfortable ones, and that they are better expressed than avoided & denied. The ability to both accept and express how they feel are skills that help them to be their authentic selves, which, from my spiritual point of view, is the purpose of parenting.
A BETTER WAY TO RESPOND
Thomas had his 4 year-old vaccinations this week. I waited until the morning of the appointment to tell him about it. I used a picture book he has in which a vet gives a kitten its vaccination to help me explain what was going to happen. He was not pleased to get the news, saying he was scared and worried that it would hurt. I sat him on my knee and listened to his feelings. I told him I understood it was scary and it would sting for a short while and also that I would be right there with him. Once we were in the nurse’s office, he inched his way under my chair, trying to hide from the inevitable. I talked to him about how he was feeling, not labouring over it or trying to coax him to feel differently. When it came time for the pricks, he squirmed and squealed a bit in anticipation and needed to be held firmly so the nurses could do their thing. Afterwards, he had a bit of a cry and cuddled up on my lap for comfort. Within a couple of minutes, though, it was if the pricks hadn’t happened.
My approach was to acknowledge how he was feeling and show my caring but, basically, to just be with Thomas, his fear and his pain. He got through it and he learned that feelings are okay & they pass in their own time.
When we show that we accept their feelings, our children learn to do the same for themselves and for others. At the moment, we’re talking grazed knees and vaccinations but we’re teaching our children to navigate the bigger fears & pains that they will face when they’re older – new jobs and broken relationships, perhaps.
CONCLUSION: WHAT IS BRAVERY, ANYWAY?
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers was my first self-help book. In my mid-twenties, I would listen to it in my car (on cassette tape!), trying to muster some courage after years of fearful living. The title sums up the best strategy for using in times of fear & pain – allowing ourselves to feel the feeling while moving forward.
Perhaps this is where bravery and courage are a little different. Bravery is about hiding our feelings and white-knuckling the situation at hand, essentially so that everyone else is impressed by us or to avoid their disapproval. Having courage, is to experience the feeling in full and show up for the situation on hand because we know it’s worth doing.
Bravery is putting on a face. Courage is facing the fear & pain.
Much love to you and your little souls,
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