Tuesday, March 28, 2023

How We Learn To Be Courageous

The children were rowdily queuing up to take turns jumping from the impromptu "diving board" they had created from a plank of wood that they had rigged up. The distance from springboard to the ground was less than two feet. A few leapt fearlessly, hurling their bodies into the air with abandon, but most were more cautious, some exceedingly cautious, and many remained on the sidelines, watching.

This was, in the eyes of most of the children, risky business. They didn't need adults hanging around cautioning them. They most definitely didn't need anyone commanding them to "be careful." They were all, clearly, approaching this self-created, self-selected challenge with the knowledge that pain was a possible consequence and were taking due measures.

One of my wife's relatives, a man who had made pediatric orthopedic devices for a living, was famous within the family for having regularly joked that "Kids are always trying to kill themselves" which was in large measure, he claimed, why he remained in business. It was an edgy joke, one I'm sure he rarely made in front of the families he served, but it echoes an attitude that many of us carry with us about young children: they may not be trying to get hurt, but they are certainly too ignorant, innocent, careless, and foolhardy to be trusted with their own assessment of risk.

Our first responsibility as adults working with young children is safety. We tend to define a "safe environment" for children as one in which injuries are rare. All preschools and child care centers have safety protocols. Hazards are identified and removed. Rules are made to prevent children from engaging in activities the adults deem too risky. Educators are often called to the carpet, fired, or even sued when a child is injured on their watch. Yet we all know, just as did the children lining up for this diving board (which would likely be banned in many settings), that complete certainty and safety in life is impossible.

And I think most of us also know, or at least we should know, that if we ever managed to create a completely certain and safe environment, it would be a kind of hell on earth. Novels of dystopia are written about futures in which the only freedom is the freedom from risk. Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids movement emerged from the recognition that in our extreme efforts to keep children safe we are inadvertently teaching our children (and parents) to be incompetent and fearful. Gever Tulley's book Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) is a stark reminder of how our culture's anxious embrace of safety at all costs is a very recent phenomenon, one that robs children of an authentic childhood.

I won't to go into the research about the benefits, indeed necessity, for children to engage in risky play, but if that's what you're looking for, Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter is one of the pre-eminent researchers and scholars in the area and you'll find everything you're looking for in her blog.

What I want to focus on here is the more philosophical and psychological side of risk and courage.

Not only is life without risk impossible, but a life without it is no life at all, which is to say the only absolute certainty and safety is death itself. The great William James wrote: "It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all." One of the great problems, according to James, is that life is full of decisions and most of the time we are forced to decide even when the evidence is less than fully persuasive either way. In other words, no matter how scientifically we approach our decisions, no matter how carefully we analyze the data, no matter how orderly our row of ducks, at the end of the day every important decision we make first requires us to make a decision about what to believe.

In our scientific age, however, deciding what to believe is a kind of sacrilege. It calls into question the very concept of truth. It requires faith that takes us outside of the realm of evidence. When those children edged out to the end of the diving board, contemplated, then leapt, they were not thinking about educating their vestibular systems or developing their pre-frontal cortexes, they were choosing to believe that they would land safely. And those who turned around and edged back to the security of the solid ground were choosing to believe that they would not . . . At least not today.

We worry about the kid who leaps, but we should be at least equally worried, perhaps more so, about the child who never chooses to leap. 

Courage is the ancient virtue that is called forth when we choose to believe, then act. And courage only comes to those who practice. Indeed, the more we practice behaving courageously, as these children were doing, the more courageous we become. As I stood watching the children, I saw them grow, before my eyes, more courageous with each effort. Before long, those who chose to believe, were believing more and more courageous things about themselves: leaping higher, farther, and faster until they had played the risk out of this game and were ready for another.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that "action is character" an assertion that is supported by both neuroscience and social research. The more people engage in day-to-day acts of courage, which is choosing to believe that they will stick their landings, the more courageous they become. Having the courage to act in the face of uncertainty is the very definition of human freedom. The only path to freedom is courage.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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