Teaching Bravery: Overlooked Lessons?

Seiji Ishii

undefinedMy daughter already shows a willingness to accept risk and potential injury. Should I encourage this? 

As a still green parent of a four-year-old daughter, I agree with the usual suggestions: teach children to be respectful, to be kind, to be generous, and the like. Well-wishing parents have yet to advocate teaching them to be brave, which is a high priority in my household.

To me, being brave doesn’t mean being fearless; fear is essential, signaling potential harm. Bravery in my mind is feeling fear, assessing the risk, and completing the action when the risk vs. reward equation is agreeable. I witness almost daily what I consider negative results of relinquishing rational thought in the absence of bravery. I have also seen crippling effects of a childhood where being safe at all costs was the underlying theme, under the guise of responsible parenting.

undefinedDo I want my daughter Sequoia tied into the other end of this rope one day? I at least want her to consider the “maybe.” Photo credit: Mountain Bureau, LLC

My occupations often place me as the lead risk assessor for adults. I witness decisions where fears grounded in past experiences overcome rational thinking. These experiences can range from decades-old childhood memories to recent failures. In either case, rationalization reveals that they have zero ability affect the current situation outside of mental blocks. While guiding or coaching climbing, I often see attempts at moves derailed by memories of injury-inducing past efforts. I understand how this occurs, suffer the same myself, but rational thinking reveals that falling on a move years ago in no way can physically affect current attempts. I believe these negative responses to past experiences are at least partially learned and bravery can forge better outcomes.

I have a friend near my age whose daily life is severely affected by obsessive-compulsive disorder. He believes it comes from childhood experiences; his parents preached avoidance of all forms of risk - germs, injuries, and illness were constant enemies. Any potentially harmful activity or sport wasn’t a consideration. He thinks this learned behavior expanded as he aged, the control required to avoid all risks contributing to anxiety issues as an adult. He suffers anxiety whenever he feels slightly out of control and fills much of his free time obsessively cleaning and organizing, stating this exercises complete control of his immediate surroundings, giving at least the illusion of total safety.

What do these examples have to do with teaching a child to be brave? I think learning to be brave as a child can help evade these and similar situations. If I can prepare my child to face her fears, rationalize the risk, and follow through, the behavior pattern will carry on into almost every aspect of her life. Maybe she will study things that genuinely interest her instead of taking the “safe” route and pursue education leading to a “secure” and readily available job. Maybe she will explore all the world has to offer instead of being grounded in her comfortable surroundings. Maybe she will start her own business or chase a non-standard way of making a living. And, maybe like her dad, she will get hurt, fail at a few businesses, and suffer stresses of the self-employed, but be filled with riches that have nothing to do with money. Maybe my friend could overcome the grips of OCD by bravely shedding lessons of the past, no matter how ingrained they may be and experience the highs and freedoms associated with not being entirely in control. Maybe the bravery will allow him to experience the massive expanse of things that today are unfeasible to him before it’s too late.


Fellow parents have never suggested “teach them to be brave,” included with the usual “teach them to be respectful, kind, etc. Teaching bravery is a priority for me; am I right or am I setting Sequoia up for a potentially injurious and dangerous future because of selfishness? 

“Maybe”…the word is suggestive and can lead to huge successes or crushing defeats. A simple description of bravery could be overcoming fears to say yes to the “maybes.” Success isn’t guaranteed, but it isn’t even possible if the answer to every “maybe” is “no.” Learn to be brave, or never enter the arena.

"It is not the critic who counts. ... The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly ... who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat." -Theodore Roosevelt

I was a teen when I read this quote. It stuck and drove a lot of my decisions as a young adult. I am in no way wiser than anyone else, and I don’t have a crystal ball. But for me, so far, so good. I wish the same freedoms and enriching experiences for my child, so will continue with the lessons in bravery. Time will tell.