Practicing Courage

At the start of the school year, I remind parents that school is a wonderful arena for teaching children how to be courageous.  

by Charles Debelak


This article was written for the community by Birchwoods Head of School Charles Debelak and appears in this months Westlake Neighbors magazine. Mr. Debelak’s writing provides parents with information about sound educational principles and child development issues gleaned from history, contemporary research, and his 50+ years of educating, coaching, and counseling children, young adults, and parents.

My reminder usually confuses them. That’s because they associate courage with remarkable acts of bravery. For example, courage is evident in the soldier willing to sacrifice his life for his country, or in the statesman who risks his reputation to serve justice, or in the social activist who suffers arrest and imprisonment to stand up for her beliefs. 

But my reminder is based on a definition of courage that makes it a behavior which can be practiced by children. It doesn’t do much good if we tell children to be courageous yet do not give them a chance to practice courage. If courage is to become part of a child’s character, it needs to be practiced until it is habituated. What we practice becomes our habit and our habits become our character. 

The practice of courage begins with setting a meaningful goal, facing a challenge, or solving a problem. The objective may be simple or complex, but embedded in this goal, there is a clear understanding that if a goal is to be reached, a sacrifice must be made, a price must be paid. It is courage, therefore, when a child sets a goal, recognizes the price that needs to be paid, and then pays it. This is courage. This form of courage can be practiced again and again until it is a habit. 

For example, if Jimmy wants to be a better math student this year, Jimmy may have to practice his math facts for an extra 10 minutes per night. Or he may have to spend an extra half hour or hour on the weekend reworking computational problems he did during the week.

If Jill hopes to become a better reader, she may need to approach her teacher and request a list of interesting books that match her interest and age. Then, instead of texting her friends all night, she decides to cut out 30 minutes of her evening for reading. Or Jill may decide to become a better writer this school year and so she decides that when she has an essay or story to write for school, she will commit to three rewrites instead of the one her teacher requires. This extra effort, this sacrifice, will help her hone her skills. In this way, she is practicing courage; she is being courageous. 

This same process might easily be applied to athletics or music. If Tim wants to make the starting lineup on the school soccer team, he may need to stay after practice each night to lift weights or run extra sprints. If Sam hopes to become the first chair for violin in the school orchestra, he may need to add an extra hour of practice each weekend in order to reach his goal. By making sacrifices to reach their goals, each boy is practicing courage; he is being courageous. 

Each time children set goals, assess the price they will need to pay, and embark on the hard work and determination they have envisioned, they are being courageous. They are practicing being courageous. The practice habituates being courageous. And given time, these children will become courageous adults. 

School is a good place to learn courage.
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