On the Journey 

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Courage: Dare to Use Your Heart and Mind
Posted 02/05/2020 11:44AM

by Brenda Stockdale, Head of Middle School

When I think of courage, I often recall Atticus Finch's explanation to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird: "Courage is when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what." I also remember the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, who is afraid of everything, including the sheep he counts when he tries to sleep. Yet, when he feels fiercely protective of Dorothy, he says to the Wicked Witch's guards, "Which one of you first? I'll fight you both together if you want. I'll fight you with one paw tied behind my back. I'll fight you standing on one foot. I'll fight you with my eyes closed...." He soon realizes he has possessed courage all along. 

Courage, whose Latin root cor means heart, literally means "to speak one's mind while telling all one's heart." Brene Brown, who has conducted extensive research on courage, says, 

"Courage requires us to look deep within our soul, to be uncomfortable, and to make a heart decision." If we continue along this line of thinking, reflect on the times you did something to the best of your ability, despite knowing you wouldn't succeed (like Atticus Finch); or when you pushed through your fear and gave something your "all" (like the Cowardly Lion)?

Like patience, courage is a learned behavior; it takes practice. Dr. Tali Shenfield says, "Courage can be taught, built upon, and expanded over the years until it becomes a habit. The secret lies in learning how to be courageous early on." It's important for parents and educators to help our children cultivate courage from a young age by giving them opportunities to practice. 

Encourage your children to:

  • Try new things, even if they're apprehensive. Join the basketball team, take piano lessons, or ask a new student over for a playdate.
  • Develop their own ideas. They don't have to agree with you; encourage independent thinking and then ask them to back up their ideas with details or evidence.
  • Try mastering a new skill, even if it's difficult or causes frustration. Play with a Rubik's Cube - work at it and work at it until you get a "solve."
  • Do the "right thing" even if it feels scary. Tell a teacher if they're feeling sad, or stand up for a classmate who is being teased.
  • Admit your mistakes, even if they're afraid of getting in trouble. Tell Alex you kicked the ball into the pond; admit to Adam you forgot your essay at home; say you're sorry to the person whose feelings you hurt.

At Aspen Country Day School, we provide our students ample opportunities to practice their courage. From Outdoor Ed adventures to the All School Play; from the Fourth Grade Egypt project to the Sixth Grade math presentations of World of Big and Small; from Friday afternoon skiing to partnering with peers on a science project, we put students in situations all the time where they must step outside of their comfort zones and try something new. The more experience they have with these novel situations, the more comfortable they'll become in new settings, the more often they'll take healthy risks, and ultimately, the more self-confidence they'll develop.

In addition, brave children are more likely to:

  • Build greater resilience and willpower. They develop perseverance by continuing to try even if they make mistakes, building confidence and determination in the process. 
  • Boost their engagement in learning. Taking a risk by raising their hand in class to offer an idea, even if their heart is beating wildly and they're not sure they know the right answer, builds fortitude.
  • Ask for help when they need it. This is one of the greatest signs of courage: admitting they need more information or someone else's perspective or expertise.  
  • Stand up to negative peer pressure. They feel confident that doing the right thing is the right thing.

Courage comes in many forms; it's not necessarily visible. While many children think courage is when someone does something heroic (a first responder saves a child from a burning building), they need to understand that most forms of courage are more subtle (asking someone to sit next to you during an assembly). It's also important to note that brave people don't necessarily feel brave on the inside. It's the inner strength required to push through fear and uncertainty that propels us forward.

Eighth Grade history students recently studied events between 1955-1970 that brought marginalized people closer to equality. As they learned about civil disobedience and violent protests - inequality and injustice, and segregation and integration - the common buzz word was courage. It took individuals and groups of people incredible courage to act on behalf of their core beliefs, to do what they knew in their hearts was the right thing, even if it meant experiencing hardship to do so.

Taylor L. said, "Courage is being able to push through hard situations to achieve your goals. Sometimes it's going against what someone says...fighting for what you believe...being able to get over your fear." 

Duncan S. quoted Nelson Mandela: "The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."

If we model courage for our children and provide them opportunities to practice this vital character trait on a regular basis, we will set them up for success. They won't know how courageous they actually are until they are confronted with situations that require them to conquer their fears and do what's right, even if the outcome won't necessarily be favorable. As Brene Brown says, "Courage requires us to act. Others can encourage us but no one can help us move from fear to courage. We must do that ourselves. That is a heart decision."

During this month of courage and Valentine's Day, let's collectively support our children in acting courageously with their hearts and minds. Imagine how empowered they'll feel!

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On the Journey, click here;
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