What does “courage” mean to the young people in your life?

Find opportunities to talk with kids about everyday acts of caring, compassion and courage.

The late poet and activist Maya Angelou wrote, “One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous or honest.” Adults who care about the healthy and positive development of kids – including their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, neighbors, students and youth group participants – hope these young people will demonstrate the qualities of caring, compassion and courage as they move through the world. For example, we may want young people to be willing to speak up as courageous allies when they see others being targeted by hurtful behaviors.

Kids take in a variety of messages about the meaning of courage, so it can be important to talk with them about what courage means to them and to you. Consider the following as you talk with them about what it means to be courageous:

  • Start by asking kids what courage means to them. Depending on their ages, they might describe courage as bravery, physical valor, not being afraid in a situation, or being willing to stand up for something they believe in. Ask them to share examples of people that they consider to be courageous – both famous people and those they know personally. Encourage them to also share examples of ways they themselves have demonstrated courage, and be prepared to share your own examples as well.
  • Many people talk about connections between acts of courage and feelings of fear. Ask kids to share examples of times they took a risk to try something new that felt scary (such as trying out for a team) or to speak up and “do the right thing” even though they felt afraid (such as speaking up when a friend treats another classmate meanly). How did these situations feel to them during the moment and afterwards? How might the courageous people they identified have felt during situations when they showed courage? What can you share about feelings of fear related to your own examples?
  • The fear that we feel in these kinds of situations may be connected to feelings of vulnerability, which researcher and educator Brené Brown defines as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, Brown asks us not to think about these kinds of feelings as weaknesses or liabilities but to instead recognize that situations where we feel vulnerable are often those that involve courage and risk. Help young people consider the feelings involved with trying something new, speaking up as a lone voice, or asking someone for forgiveness.
  • As these kinds of examples show, courage doesn’t only involve dramatic situations such as saving someone’s life, taking a big physical risk or going to jail for an important cause. Emphasize the role of courage within the smaller acts of our everyday lives – like when we raise our hand to answer a hard question during class, reaching out to the new person in our 4-H group, or trying out for a new sport. Stress that even if we get the answer wrong, get rebuffed by someone or don’t make the team, we should recognize and be proud of our effort and the courage it took to take the risk.
  • Ask young people about cultural and media messages they’ve heard about gender and courage. Too many of the messages aimed at boys (and men) limit bravery and courage to standing up to or dominating an opponent, and urge them to “never back down” or “stand up like a man.” These kinds of messages also often belittle those who show vulnerability and sensitivity (“boys don’t cry” or “quit acting like a girl”). Consider the kinds of language and messages that you’re conveying to boys and girls that might affect the ways they demonstrate caring, compassion and courage. Help them develop skills to deconstruct and challenge these kinds of limiting messages when they see them in their surrounding media setting. Also encourage kids to look for examples in books, television shows, films and other forms of media that show young people acting in caring and courageous ways. Use children’s books to help younger kids explore their feelings, and be willing to watch television shows and movies with older youth while having an open dialogue about what you’re noticing.

As you find ways to help young people explore and build on their capacity for caring, compassion and courage, consider the following quote from author and artist Mary Anne Radmacher, “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.” Help young people recognize the value of persistence in developing these important aspects of who they are and who they are becoming.

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for adults to learn more about ways to support the positive development of young people – including ways they can use their voices to interrupt hurtful behaviors, such as bullying. These efforts are part of the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments initiative, which includes a curriculum designed to help adults and youth work in partnership to create positive relationships and settings.