Parenting with a PhD: Brave

By Kristen Berthiaume:

Little kids learn from an early age how to interpret the word “brave” – it means trying something (a big slide, swimming  in the deep end, broccoli) even if they’re afraid to do it. We think of “brave” people as those who risk their lives fighting fires, going to war, and arresting criminals. The idea of one day holding one of these jobs appeals to young children because right now, they don’t often feel “brave.” Instead, they often have lots of fears (the dark, ghosts, broccoli) that they are powerless to stand up against.  When little kids do try the scary thing – and especially when they succeed at it – we congratulate them and call them “brave.” That’s a very good feeling.

But, sometimes the “scary” thing the child is afraid of isn’t actually a great idea anyway. If your son’s friends are all jumping off a high wall and calling him a “baby” because he won’t do it, he has a pretty difficult choice to make: A) He can do the thing that his gut tells him is too dangerous or B) He can just ignore his friends and stay safe on the ground. If he chooses option A, it might go just fine. He jumps off with no injuries and everyone stops calling him names. Or, he could break his ankle and have to sit out of soccer for the rest of the season. With Option B, his ankle stays secure as do his chances of being a superstar at his game Saturday. The problem here is that your son doesn’t fully feel the choice is his because society has taught him that option A is the “brave” choice and option B is weak. What if we re-define “brave” to include doing what you feel is right even if it’s not what others are telling you to do? Anybody can jump off a wall but imagine the courage it would take to say to your friends that you’re not going to do the thing they so badly want you to do? For little kids, especially little boys, that’s very brave.

Last fall, while at Disney World, my 8-year-old and I stood F.O.R.E.V.E.R. in line for the Haunted Mansion ride. Slowly but surely, we wound through the creepy statues, fake tombstones, and carriage hearse and eventually made it inside. I was relieved that the ride could finally get started (and to have A/C). My daughter, however, had a different reaction. She realized as she took in more and more of the décor that this ride was going to scare her and that she didn’t really want to do it after all. When she told me this, my initial reaction was annoyance – what a colossal waste of time. I thought about telling her to “suck it up” (but, you know, nicely – like a mother would say that) and that there was no way to exit so we’d just have to ride but then it struck me: she knows this information will frustrate me. She knows we’ve been waiting forever, that I wanted to ride, and that I wanted her to ride. She’s telling me that she’s afraid despite the fact that this information won’t be well-received. She is listening to the small voice inside her that tells her when something does/doesn’t feel right for her. Who am I to force her to ignore that gut instinct? No, this voice can’t tell her to quit going to school or stop putting away her dirty clothes but is it really so important that she go on this particular ride? Will missing out impact her life at all? The fact is that she was brave to listen to that voice. She was brave to tell me that she didn’t want to ride even though she knew it might make me angry. The least I could do was honor her willingness to say it anyway.

I can think of a million reasons you want your child listening to his small, inner voice as he grows up. This is the voice that will help him avoid getting into a car with a driver who’s been drinking or getting physically intimate with someone before he’s ready. This is the voice that will encourage your daughter to keep playing sports in P.E., even if all of her friends are just sitting and watching. This voice will give your son the confidence to be honest when he doesn’t have his homework, instead of copying it from someone else. This is the voice that will warn your daughter to leave and tell an adult if someone touches her in a way that makes her uncomfortable. This voice is the embodiment of all the values you’re trying to instill in your child: Be your own person; Do the right thing even when no one else is looking; Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you; etc. If we don’t encourage our children to listen to their inner voice in times of stress, they’ll learn to do what others tell them instead of what they know to be right.

So, how can parents foster this “brave” inner voice? Look for a time when your child is learning a new skill. Respond to “I can’t” and “I’m scared” statements by saying, “It’s really brave of you to tell me that you’re afraid. It’s normal to feel unsure about new things.” Decide together if the new skill is something your child really wants to learn or if he may be feeling pressure from you or from peers to learn it. Encourage him to say how he truly feels about it without worrying what your reaction will be. Be neutral in your response, even if you feel aggravated. Once you find out if the motivation comes from him or external sources, you’ll know whether to push or back off. Just because she says she’s not ready to do something right now doesn’t mean she won’t be ready next week.

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way and I’ll tell you what I can: Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates. She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her daughters, ages seven and one, and four-year-old son.


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