Definitions of courage
“Courage is the ability to stand in the face of and move through experiences of adversity, uncertainty and uncomfortable feelings like anxiety, fear and pain,” says Sarde Matti, a registered clinical social worker who works with youth and young adults experiencing mental health complications. Courage is a precursor to confidence and resilience in her view. “It’s so easy to fall into a critical narrative of ourselves. Courageous behaviour [rewards us] with confidence,” she explains. “If we take steps to move through uncomfortable feelings we can show ourselves at any point in life that we have the capacity to bounce back, instead of allowing those feelings to burden us or hold us back from achieving our goals.”
Ask Hailey, a former camper at Radiant Girls, and she’ll tell you that courage consists of “putting others before yourself and just doing the right thing before it’s even asked.” She believes courage she's developed in camp helps her in difficult situations, and encourages her to take ownership of mistakes.
What does courage look like?
Sometimes, even in adulthood, Matti explains, “we’re prevented from doing things that make us uncomfortable or vulnerable, whereas children are naturally inquisitive, explorative and curious. Childhood is the optimal time to develop [courage] so it can be refined as time goes on.” The skill of courage, she believes, can grow throughout our lives as we diversify our experiences.
Very young children interpret courage as the ability to demonstrate bravery in fearful situations, such as going on a rollercoaster or learning to ride a bike. As they get older, they begin to associate courage with psychological fears, the risks involved and whether or not they can overcome it. Examples of this include standing up to bullying, owning up to a mistake or asking for help when you need support. Courage provides an individual with the ability to step out of their comfort zone and move past negative feelings or thoughts. “Being able to say I need help or support, being able to be vulnerable and share your thoughts and experiences is so courageous,” according to Matti. “I think if you look for it, you can see courage in everyday moments.”
Courage provides an individual with the ability to step out of their comfort zone and move past negative feelings or thoughts.
Hailey illustrates from her Radiant Girls’ experience how she learned courage in the past. “When I was rock climbing, I got blisters from the rope,” she says, “I was a bit moody about it and I was being rude to the other girls.” Gina Faubert, director of Radiant Girls camp, pulled her aside for a chat. “I was afraid that if I said sorry, their opinion wouldn’t change and it wouldn’t mean a thing.” Gina told Hailey that it would be courageous of her to do the right thing. It was a lesson that stuck with her.
As we get older, we begin to associate courage with psychological challenges. Maddy Wells took on just such a challenge when she took part in an Outward Bound West Coast Discovery course in Clayoquot Sound. The point of Outward Bound programs is precisely to get young people out of their comfort zones. For her, the physical difficulties of the Outward Bound course were prodigious, but the bigger challenge was overcoming her own feelings of limitation. Outward Bound helps older kids challenge those limits, just as they’re learning about who they are and where they fit in the world. Like Wells, teens in these programs often discover they can exceed those challenges. At the end of it, she says, “I felt so much peace. I had done something I never thought I could achieve. I had told myself my whole life that someone such as myself could never deserve an experience like this, but I was wrong. I learned a lot about myself ... I had the ability to empower others and myself, and I had the strength to push myself mentally and physically further than I believed possible.”
How to develop courage
Kids develop courage when they persevere through uncertainty or uncomfortable feelings. Although new environments can create negative emotions and challenges, it’s important to expose them to settings that will foster and develop courage. Matti believes that social environments “naturally diversify a child’s experiences [because] children are exposed to new people, settings and activities.”
Camps and recreational programs are particularly unique, in her opinion, because “[they foster] courage building by allowing children to explore through play and fun without the added, perceived pressure of performance that might accompany a more traditional, academic setting.”
Similarly, Hailey believes she learned one-of-a-kind lessons in courage through camp. “It really changed me as a person,” she says. One activity in particular resonated strongly with her.
She explains, “[Gina] told us to write a letter to our so-called enemy and just write all the nasty things we could think of them, and then afterwards, we’d crumple it up and burn it.” The exercise was symbolic of forgiving yourself and the other person you might have negative feelings towards. “That’s something that really stuck with me,” she says.
Matti believes an effective way to teach courage to children is to model it yourself. “Children are so impressionable”, she says. “If they see people in their environment doing courageous acts by working through adversities and feelings like anxiety or fear, it’s definitely influential and encouraging the child’s own behaviour.”
She suggests that parents can have a discussion with children wherein they explain courage and demonstrate what it looks like. From there, they can encourage kids to exercise courage in their day-to-day life. Daily examples of courage can include participating in a class discussion, asking a friend for help on a homework question, or trying out for their school’s soccer team.
However, Matti also recommends reframing some situations for children, to show them when they are displaying courage to help them make the connection. For example, consider the child playing their first soccer game who may be typically critical of their rookie performance. “Show the child that they were actually demonstrating courage by taking initiative to engage in something new and move through feelings of anxiety or fear”, she says. “This is important to help them realize their own capacity for skill-building and to help them recognize that within themselves.”
Finally, she stresses the importance of giving yourself permission to be imperfect.
“Today in the digital age … children are influenced in regards to how to act, how to behave, what to purchase, etc. Creating safety for a child to be able to question and bring up those experiences is really important.” When your child demonstrates courage, boost this behaviour as much as possible. If your child falls off course, take the opportunity to give positive feedback and teach them there’s value in learning from the experience. Remember to support your child and let them know that you are there for them, every step of the way.
What are the benefits of courage?
Courage builds confidence and resilience, while also encouraging children to persevere in the face of adversity. Matti has worked with many youth who have mental health difficulties. For many of these kids, courage sets the stage for learning. “As we age and at any point in our lives, it’s so natural for us to fear the unknown and to avoid things that make us uncomfortable. If we can continue to question things and diversify our experiences then we’re always setting the stage for learning.”
Courage is a key aspect of leadership, she adds. “The individuals who are taking risks”, she says, “who are making practice changes, who are making suggestions for quality improvement and innovation...these are all acts of courage!” Courage is an integral leadership skill when someone moves through feelings of doubt or fear, towards an attitude that makes them feel like they can accomplish what they put their mind to.
Patience is key
Courage is a skill nurtured and developed as kids mature. Matti highlights the importance of acknowledging that sometimes, “the impacts of our acts of courage aren’t always seen right away.” It has ripple effects over time. “Don’t be discouraged and don’t allow children to be discouraged if they don’t have immediate gratification from that courageous act. Continue practicing that because it could have more of an impact than you know.”
She encourages individuals to try and identify courage within themselves.
“Don’t misinterpret the anxiety, the fear, the pain or uncertainty as not having the capacity for courage. It’s the act of moving through these feelings that truly gives definition to courage,” she says.
Want your child to grow in courage?
Camp is a great environment for fostering and developing courage because it exposes children to new experiences that may initially cause hesitancy, nervousness or doubt. At camp, your child will be required to work with others and participate in new activities, itself a demonstration of courage. This environment will help your child move through their negative feelings and gain confidence, resilience and leadership skills.