This is part three in a series of articles on teaching and leading your children. Part one, which introduces the series, can be found here.
I have told my kids that there are no monsters in their closets, but if there were, the reason they would be hiding in the closet is because they are scared of me. I’m guessing that although I find that a very funny idea that my kids aren’t really comforted by it. It certainly doesn’t teach them courage.
Because there aren’t any monsters in my children’s closets, I seek out other opportunities to teach courage. For example, I’m not scared of bugs because I can’t be. Someone has to kill them, and that duty falls under my job description. And if something goes bump in the night, it’s my job to get up and see what it is, and if necessary, it’s my job to deal with it. While there are teaching opportunities in each of these scenarios, overcoming a fear of bugs is probably not age-appropriate for my kids, and explaining the significance of things that go bump in the night would only give them nightmares (and would otherwise serve no purpose). Frankly, neither of these scenarios are of the sort that call upon the kind of courage that my children need at this stage in their lives.
There are other fears.
My kids are at different developmental stages. My two year old’s only real fears involve things that are new, like strange people, things that are loud like balloons popping, and things that are unpredictable like yappy dogs and big sisters. The five year old is at a similar stage, but in general she is fearless – to the extent that I wonder sometimes if I shouldn’t be intentionally teaching her how to be scared instead of courageous. The six year old, however, is at a different developmental stage. Yes, dealing with uncertainty is hard for her. But she is also coming into a stage of life where self-consciousness and embarrassment and failure are becoming sources of fear. She is learning to cope with natural fears, yes, but also fears about what consequences when she fails, and who will notice, who will judge, and how they will react.
There are some basic ideas that I can teach her – some simple techniques that point to a truth: fear is an emotional response rather than an objective state of being. Fear can be brought on from:
A lack of understanding
A lack of preparation
A lack of ability
A lack of faith
It stands to reason then that courage, like fear, is also an emotional and situational response, rather than a state of being. Courage, after all, comes only when you have a need to be courageous, and not an instant before. So – could it be said that courage is the result of understanding one’s situation, being prepared for it, having the ability to deal with it, and acting in faith that those things are true?
That’s a question that I’d like you to consider carefully, even as I work through it myself. At first blush, it certainly seems true, but I’m not certain it is universally so. As a father I am learning that there are events in my life that I find myself in for which I have no understanding, for which I could not possibly be prepared, and which call for a response that is well beyond my ability.
Life, then, it seems gives us abundant opportunities to experience fear as an emotional response. As a person of faith in God, I’ve read and been told my entire life what the bible says about courage. One of the most popular verses in scripture is this:
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”
– Joshua 1:9 (ESV)
As I’ve been contemplating this verse, I’m struck by some important words: “Have I not commanded you?” First, we learn that Joshua is being commanded by God to be courageous. This isn’t a simple request. And second, it’s obvious that this isn’t the first time Joshua has been given this instruction.
Keeping in mind that we’re looking at only the ninth verse of the first chapter of Joshua, it seems a little early in the book for God to already be repeating Himself. But sure enough, in verse 6: “Be strong and courageous…”. And again in verse 7: “Only be strong and very courageous…” So – just nine verses into the book and God has already commanded Joshua on three different occasions to be strong and courageous. I’m guessing that this was instruction that Joshua had need of hearing. And this wasn’t the first time Joshua had heard these instructions from God:
Deuteronomy 31:6: “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”
Deuteronomy 31:7: “Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, ‘Be strong and courageous…'”
Deuteronomy 31:23: “And the Lord commissioned Joshua the son of Nun and said, ‘Be strong and courageous…'”
You get the idea. I’m not going to dig into the things that were going on in Joshua’s life that caused him to need the instruction to be strong and courageous – at least not today. For this message I want to focus on the instruction God gives, and on the words themselves: It occurs to me that God gives this command repeatedly, but He doesn’t explain how to follow them.
So: How do you become strong and courageous? How do we teach this behavior to our kids?
I definitely believe that it pays to help our kids prepare for uncertain situations that may cause them fear.
Be prepared for what you know will be required of you.
Understand that there are things you don’t know.
Give up worrying about the things that you can’t know in advance, because that sort of worry is not the same as fear, and courage won’t help with it.
Understand that courage comes when you need to be courageous, not before.
Recognize that courage is needed when you aren’t strong enough by yourself, and that if you are strong enough by yourself you have nothing to fear.
All of these are good lessons that teach the value of knowledge and preparation and self-sufficiency.
But you know what? They still don’t teach anything at all about what courage looks like and how to be courageous. And so we are back to the question again: how do you teach your kids to be courageous?
The simple answer is this: there is no separating the condition of courage from the state of being that is living in faith. The only real response to fear is faith, and courage, then, comes in believing. There are many things in which our world and our culture ask us to believe: our friends, our colleagues, products that we buy, things that we are taught and people that teach us. But courage is a faith-based response to fear. Consider: every time you pull out into traffic, you are placing faith in the idea that when you step on the accelerator pedal that your car will start moving at a fast enough rate to keep you from getting smeared by that oncoming 18-wheeler. See my point?
So our job is to teach faith, and as loving parents, our job is to teach faith in things that are right, that are true, that are reliable.
And what is a person called that gives courage like this through faith to the people around him?
Have you ever considered the relationship between the words “courage”, “encourage” and “discourage”? Could it be a good working definition of “encourage” could be to strengthen another person’s faith? Or that someone who is “discouraging” is a person who takes faith away from other people?
It seems, I guess, too simple and too obvious that the best way of teaching courage to our children is to encourage them. Of course, for most people, “encourage” might seem as simple a matter as cheering them on, saying to them “you can do it!”, and picking them up when they fail. Those can indeed be encouraging things. But I would like to shift your thinking a bit on what it means to be an encourager.
Yes, teach your children the value of education and preparation. But as you encourage them let your encouragement be focused on helping them evaluate the things in life that are worthy of their faith. It is in those things that courage is found and fear is dispelled. From the anchor of faith in things that are true and right, your children will have a basis for a courage that will serve them and the legacy of people they will lead long after you’ve gone.
So what about Joshua? Joshua isn’t told some sort of new-age affirmations about being good enough, smart enough or that people like him. Joshua was encouraged “for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” The guy has a book in the bible named after him. It seems to have been pretty good advice.