Our toddler granddaughter, busily flitting about the room, falls and smacks her hand on a chair. Previously absorbed in toys and siblings, she now scrunches up her eyes and cries, shrinking down into herself. Absorbed by her pain, her attention has fallen out of the room, into her hand. Our son studies the scene, to see if she’s really injured. If she was, he would sympathize and do whatever was needed. But he decides correctly that she’s not injured, but merely hurting. He then looks at her intently and calls out, “Diana, Diana, be brave… be brave.” Responding to Daddy’s call, Diana opens her eyes, shares his gaze, and rises above her hurt. Her pain is no longer her universe of awareness, but merely an uncomfortable, alien object in her community with Daddy.
Does she understand what “be brave” means? Of course not. Toddlers cannot be reasoned with because they don’t yet enjoy the use of reason. They must be made to behave in certain ways, with as much authority as needed by their very different temperaments. For all of us to become adults eventually, we must learn that what we wish sometimes is not good for us, and what we fear is not necessarily bad. What we wish may be bad, and what we fear may be good or at least necessary to endure for some greater good. So we must learn how to disregard or suppress what we feel will please or trouble, in order to choose what we truly need. The long parental project of education, e-ducare, means “leading out” kids from these erratic squalls of fear and desire, onto the sunny uplands of Whole Persons, with a coherent vision of happy intimacy and the disciplined habits needed to choose it.
So, our toddler Diana does not choose rationally to ignore her pain, but she now associates the word “brave,” with a magical ability to rise above it. She chooses the good of “being with Daddy,” over being immersed in her hurt. This is the beginning of physical courage, the developed habit of rising above immediate pains. Diana’s natural purpose is to grow into a self-reliant, sociable adult someday, so she can maintain a happy, useful membership in her family, friendships, and community, despite the interference of her own pleasures and pains, desires and fears. While moderation is the learned habit of mastering pleasure, courage is the learned habit of mastering pain. Since it’s obviously easier to detach anyone from their pains, rather than their pleasures, it makes sense that learning courage comes first.
Character of Courage in Books
Our toddler’s emerging habit of physical courage can be expanded by entering into “community” with the characters in books. An accessible example of courage for the little ones, for example, is Pooh Bear, eating too much honey in Rabbit’s treehouse, and getting stuck in the door, trying to leave. For toddlers, an unwelcome restraint – getting buried in a blanket – can be a source of panic. Yet Pooh waits patiently, jammed in the hole, until he loses enough weight to escape. So this prompts a simple question, “Is Pooh being brave, stuck in his hole?” This hints at the need for patience, while developing the ability to identify with a fictional character.
Now, we shouldn’t turn their books into vocabulary curricula – Pooh deserves to be admired for Pooh’s own sake – but we can be intentional in finding suitable words of praise and blame, as these little opportunities arise. Virtue is taught with much praise and some blame, because children hunger by nature for portraits of responsible adulthood, taught naturally in the language of praise and blame.
Children begin reasoning, organizing their world, right from birth, but their use of reason, their growing presence of mind, involves projecting their purposes into the future. At six or eight years old, future-oriented kids now need something more than physical resistance to raw pain. Pain anticipated is fear, and fear is usually more painful than the pain – in itself, a valuable lesson. So the habit of courage blossoms as the ability to master one’s fear, choosing the good in the face of a fearful possibility. In Different Dragons, for example, Jean Little gives a nice portrait of the fear of dogs, which kids can identify and hold at arm’s length (like “exposure therapy”). The common fear of abandonment is seen in Kit Pearson’s Guests of War series; so we identify with real (so to speak) characters, learning at a distance to face their anxieties.
Growing in Courage
In confronting real fears and vaguer anxieties, kids must learn that they can and must grow in courage. While first in comfy Hobbiton, Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins is positively cowardly, but step-by-step, he grows in courage, by first saving his comrades from trolls, then confronting greater evils, and ultimately matching wits with clever Smaug, for the dragon’s treasure – “keeping his head when all around are losing theirs.” Bilbo’s growing courage never sinks to boastful swagger. Habitual courage is “keeping one’s head,” and dwarfish rashness is just another variety of losing it, with painful results for everyone.
Life is good, and humans are designed for life in society, so our real happiness is our common good in conversing, building, and simply being with others, first family and friends, and then the wider world. A nice introduction to the courage needed for life in a common good is Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society. This series focuses on a team of very different characters, each contributing their peculiar strengths, and fearful that their particular weaknesses will fail the team. Humans enjoy a spectacular diversity in temperaments, and complimentary talents and proclivities, so that we can share the fruits of teamwork, cooperative divisions of labour. So the Benedict team first learns to appreciate each other’s unique abilities, and then trust that the others can make up for their own shortfalls. It is always surprising to learn how different people are, but as kids can learn to engage, they learn that a common good is greater than the sum of its parts.
Courage is most fully mastering the painful fear of future pain, for the common good of our community of friends. In community, however, we also suffer the pain of shame in the memory of our own past failures – pain unavoidable for error prone kids and honest adults. Learning the practical lessons of our past is prudence, and the most important lessons are always most painful, so we need moral courage to recollect and regret. In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for example, Edmund betrays his brother and sisters for candy, Turkish Delight, then prolongs his agony to avoid his shame of the truth. Having violated their fellowship, his painful education is later praised as his repentance, and the joyful restoration of fellowship, redemption.
Training in Habits
As kids enter adolescence (say, age 12), they more intentionally seek independence, which inevitably means taking responsibility for training their own habits –training them well or poorly. This means clarifying their own standards of praise and blame, which includes greater awareness of the vices to be avoided, like cowardice. So in her Malory Towers, Naughtiest Girl and St. Clare’s books, formidable Enid Blyton paints pictures of cowardly kids, lying to avoid just punishment for their selfishness. The ugliness of their vice is often emphasized by their being the Goody Two-Shoes of their schools, introducing the not-uncommon wrinkle of hypocrisy, a kind of moral cowardice. Brian Jacques Redwall books are hugely popular with boys for the interplay of courage and cowardice. Moral cowardice is knowingly betraying our own potential courage, when we know we could take our lumps for the team, but choose not to.
We are fully alive and happy only in a community of truth, sharing grateful, honest gazes. And as we mature into adulthood, we learn about healthy, happy habits and harmful, unhappy ones by reference to the actions and characters praised and blamed. Yet we can fear the pain of shame, more than the reality of our own vice. In our freedom, we tell lies, weakly or maliciously, to erect cardboard images of ourselves before others. Anne Shirley of Green Gables is dared to climb a tall ridgepole, so she faces the choice between confessing her entirely prudent fear, or enslaving herself to her characteristically extravagant self-image. Not surprisingly, pride goes before Anne’s fall.
The habits are everything, says Aristotle; we are our habits: the families and friendships we bless, the careers we build, and the mastery over our passions that makes it all possible. Moral courage faces our fear of the consequences of staying true to ourselves, and it’s put to the test most in facing raw malice. Personal malice is a real test of moral courage, often because it’s a surprise to the virtuous. Since real togetherness is our happiness, well-formed kids are shocked to discover that twisted souls prefer lonely domination, and a bullying stare repels in its ugliness. So, facing the now popular “cry-bullying,” mature kids are tempted to apologize, in the hope of restoring togetherness. For their selfish adversaries, however, apologies are blood in the water. So, for the cry-bully’s potential victims, real moral courage – preserving one’s presence of mind – requires the confidence to deny wrongdoing, when there’s been none. When it comes to these sorts of malicious twists and turns, the realistic Roald Dahl provides many amusing examples.
Results of the Cultivated Habit of Courage
At the “bottom line,” the cultivated habit of courage maintains our presence of mind in the face of pain, for the sake of our common good. That can mean solidarity in enduring prolonged hardship (in Wilder’s Little House books) or seeing a mission through in the midst of deadly threats (in Forester’s Hornblower series). Kipling’s Kim beautifully portrays courage as an enduring “presence of mind,” as does the entire Robert Louis Stevenson corpus.
Some parents, overly sensitive to the notion of disciplining their kids, prefer to insulate them from pains and fears. In the wilds, however, subject to the wind, plants develop little “micro-cracks” in their stalks, to develop their stiffness and strength. When green-housed, protected from the wind, their stalks grow thin, spindly, and prone to droop. So wise greenhouse gardeners use fans to make up for the absent wind, providing an artificial healthy stiffening. Likewise, our stiffening, our exposure to and mastery over our fears, is the necessary beginning of virtue.
Written by Dr. Joseph Woodard, CCHE Director of Research