How to Raise Courageous Kids

I am not an educational specialist, child psychologist, school counselor, ex-teacher, parenting expert, or athletic coach. However, as a mother of four teens, I often see parents get a little too preoccupied with the external measures of their children’s success – making summa cum laude, the varsity team or entrance to an Ivy college – and losing sight of the inner measures that will enable them to thrive and ‘win’ in the larger game of life.

In referring to ‘winning’, I’m not talking about coming first or Summa Cum Lade, but simply growing into adults who are whole, connected, resilient, and fully engaged in whatever makes them come alive. As parents, we have a limited time to help our kids build ‘muscles for life’ – discernment muscles, grit muscles, responsibility muscles, self-discipline muscles, vulnerability muscles, leadership muscles, compassion muscles… courage muscles!  If they leave our nest and haven’t built them, they’ll have a far harder time taking off to soar and thrive as adults.

7 Ways to Raise Courageous Kids

1. Teach your kids to discern smart risks from foolish ones 

Risk often gets a bad rap. But all risks aren’t created equal and so we have to teach our kids to discern between foolish risks and those necessary to achieve what they want. I know, I know… easier said than done.

From the moment we become a parent we are wired to protect our children from harm and there is nothing we fear more than something or someone causing them harm. As we hear stories of terrible things happening to children – from catastrophic injuries to child predators – it only amplifies our fear and focuses on the many ‘risks’ our children face.  Yet the reality is that the world is a dangerous place and by sheltering them from all risk, we deprive them of the opportunity to develop the skills to assess it accurately. Just because something is scary doesn’t mean it’s bad for us. In fact, sometimes we have to do the very thing that we are most afraid of in order to achieve what we want most.

Encourage your kids to exit the safety of their comfort zone and to try things where they may risk failure or falling short. Sure they won’t always get the result they want, but they’ll learn a lot about what it takes to succeed next time.

(You can read about my son Ben going sky diving for his 13th birthday in this older blog post here.) 

2. Nurture their big dreams

On my 40th birthday my daughter Maddy, 10 at the time, gave me a handcrafted birthday voucher on which she wrote:

“This vowcher lets you be my gest at the Oscars when I am nomnated for best actres.”

I recall thinking that she stood more chance of winning an Oscar than the national spelling bee! I then tucked my ‘vowcher’ away for safekeeping until that day arrives. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay too. I love that she wasn’t afraid to dream big.

Often between dressing up as Superman or Little Mermaid and graduating college, young people dial down their ambitions as the realities of the ‘real’ world press in. Lowering the bar on ambition minimizes the likelihood of not scaling it. But steering your kids toward ‘safe’ aspirations because you’re afraid of what may happen if they take the less certain road less traveled, isn’t loving, it’s selfish.  Surely it’s safer in the long run for them to pursue whatever dreams inspire them than one day looking back and wondering ‘What if?’  Sure they may not hit the mark. They may even change their minds. But along the journey, they’ll learn more about themselves and life than they ever would otherwise. 

I have yet to meet an adult who told me they dreamt too big, but I’ve lost count of those who’ve confided they wished they’d dared more boldly. Our children are capable of extraordinary things, but they’ll only realize their potential when they’re stretched and challenged and encouraged to aspire toward what lights them up.

3. Encourage non-conformity (in doses)

“First impressions count,” is something my kids have heard me say many times as I’ve drummed into them the importance of being polite and respectful. But I’ve also encouraged them not to let ‘what others will think’ matter more than what they think themselves. There are far too many adults living ‘shouldie’ lives, unconsciously directed by doing what they think they ‘should do’ not what they truly want to do

I don’t care if my kids are the fastest, smartest, or first at anything. Nor do I care if they one day go to the best college or pursue a high-status career path.  I do care that whatever path they pursue aligns with the truth of who they are and that fear of ‘what other people think’ doesn’t keep them from developing and expressing their gifts and personality in the world.  

4. Share your struggles; reveal your vulnerability 

No one gets through life without a few hardships and heartaches.  Nurturing our children’s innate resilience is one of the biggest responsibilities of any parent. We set our kids up to navigate life’s corners and curveballs better when we share how we are navigating our own. White-washing reality or pretending all is fine doesn’t serve our children in the long run. Likewise, as I wrote about in my latest book You’ve Got This!, revealing your vulnerability won’t make you seem weak; it will show them you’re human. The more comfortable you are with your own vulnerability, the more comfortable your children will be with theirs.

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