Monthly Archives: April 2011

5-Minute Courage Workout: It’s a Dog Eat Dog World!

Compiled and written by Lisa and Jennifer:

No matter where you live in the world, dogs are either your best friend or a wildly roaming neighbor you and your child need to learn how to be brave around.  As much as dogs can provide much love, exercise, and entertainment to our lives, it is wise to remember that they are predators and certain human behaviors can trigger their prey drive.  Local customs and beliefs about dogs vary around the world, but dog behavior is universal.

If your family has a canine member, chances are your child has already learned how to be safe and practice being a pack leader.  If not, here’s a list of 5-Minute Courage Workouts by age range to boost confidence in our dog-eat-dog world.
                          Grab Some Lion’s Whiskers Today!
  • Toddler: reading books together and pointing out all the doggies, practicing your own unique barks, and learning how to safely pet a dog is the perfect place to start teaching your toddler about dogs.  The next time you are visiting friends with a dog, or walking around the neighborhood, spending five minutes teaching your child that it is up to you as his/her parent when/if your child gets to pet the doggie.  First, ask the owner “Is your dog child-friendly?  Would it be okay if I pet your dog?”  If the owner says “No!”  heed the owner’s caution wisely.  Wide-berth the dog and carry on.  Be aware that toy breeds are most appealing to small children, but also most likely to be fearful and/or jump up and startle your toddler.  As much as possible, you want your child’s first introduction to the dog world to be with a larger, gentle dog (e.g. Lab, Newfie, Retriever). When you have the owner’s “OK”, tell your child “Mommy’s going to pet the doggie.  Watch what I do.”  Keeping a safe distance between your child and the dog, perhaps even holding your child’s hand at your side with your body between your child and the dog.  Show your child how you make your other hand into a fist and offer it for the dog to smell.  Say to your child “This is how a doggie gets to know us, by taking a sniff.” Little fingers not rolled into a fist make for sausage-like looking treats to most dogs.  Once you are confident in the dog’s friendly nature, you can then model for your child how to pet the dog in the middle of it’s back.  If your child is curious, have them form their own hand into a fist and allow the dog to smell or lick your toddler’s hand and then pet the doggie gently with your help so their body remembers what gentle touch feels like.   
  • Preschooler: preschoolers love to squeal, squirm, and jump around like fun prey or playmates for most dogs.  Modeling a calm demeanour for your child to emulate around dogs will be important at this stage.  Quietly standing tall with hands at your side, for example, will help show your child to adopt the pack leader posture.  The next time you encounter a dog you don’t know, spend five minutes practicing how to stand still, look away, and fold your arms across your chest until the dog has passed.  Showing your child how to be confident in a potentially threatening situation helps them develop the same confidence.  Reassure your child that most dogs, after they have had a sniff, will move on especially when we stay calm. 
  • Early elementary student: make a doggie playdate with a friend, neighbor, or family member who owns a reasonably well-trained dog.  The goal here is for your child to have at least one five-minute opportunity to learn how to give a dog a command and have success being assertive with a dog.  “Sit” is a great command to start with, it levels the playing field quickly between an early elementary student’s stature and an average-sized dog.  The typical command for “Sit” involves either raising one hand slightly palm-side up or pointing with one finger to the ground.  Have the dog’s owner model the command first.  Again, ensuring your child uses a lower-pitched voice, stands tall, and doesn’t wiggle around nervously when issuing the command will be important.  Each command is meant to be issued once, followed either with a treat or praise, and not to be repeated over and over again without success.  If a treat is rewarded, ensure that your child offers it on a flat palm, fingers tight together. 
  • Upper elementary student or ‘tween:  if you’ve been practicing courage workouts with your child and he/she has learned to navigate the neighborhood independently (maybe even with your own family dog), your child is now likely to encounter a dog without you nearby.  It could be a dog on a leash, in that case they now know how to ask the owner before approaching or interacting with the dog.  If it is an unleashed dog, teach your child not to interact and how to assess the degree of threat.  Discuss with your child what threatening gestures from a dog look like: fur up on their backs, exposed snarling teeth, growling, ears forward, head lowered, and tail held stiffly.  Review a checklist with your child about how to keep themselves safe around an aggressive dog in your neighborhood.  This list could include the following: walk don’t run to the nearest safe house, climb a fence, pick up a stick to distract or keep the dog at a safe distance.  Take a five-minute walk through the neighborhood together to assess any hot spots in your ‘hood and practice what to do. 
  • High schooler or teen:  It is rare to get to the teen years without at least one scary run-in with a dog.  Take five minutes to review what your teen actually knows about how to deal with dogs.  Ask your teen if there have been any dog incidents recently that you don’t know about, and find out what happened and what choices he made.  Ask how he knew to do what he did, and spend a few minutes reviewing what some of the other options might have been.   Offer kudos for a job well done (after all, his limbs are still intact).  Share a scary dog story from your own experience, (or that of someone you know) to highlight what your options were, how you showed courage in the moment, and what you learned about how to deal with dogs.  The more opportunities we have to rehearse scenarios, the better prepared we are when the situation bares its teeth at us.
There is no human habitat, outside of Antarctica, that does not include dogs.  We can’t possibly provide a workout for every scenario around the world.  We are suggesting, however, that you consider the possible scenarios in your corner of the globe, practice with your child how to be courageous around dogs.  Then, send us your advice! 

The more a child learns to take up his/her space in the world with respect and practical knowledge about his/her environment, the more confidently he/she can roam this earth with our fellow canine companions. 
Working on these skills may call upon different types of courage, depending upon your child’s particular strengths and/or temperament.  For example, asking some children to give a command may take social courage, for others physical courage to do the same task without retreating. Review the Six Types of Courage to figure out which types your child needs to complete this workout.

Want more workouts? Here’s our  5-Minute Courage Workout: A Fate Worse Than Death (on public speaking), our 5-Minute Courage Workout: Home Alone, our 5-Minute Courage Workout: Talking Dirty, our  5-Minute Courage Workout: Playing with Fire, 5-Minute Workout on Saying I’m Sorry, or our 5-Minute Courage Workout: Navigating the Neighborhood

We’d love to hear about your results with one of these workouts, or share your own!

Deeper into the Enchanted Woods We Go

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Vintage)Here are two more passages from the introduction which bear some consideration.
“It is characteristic of fairy tales to state an existential dilemma briefly and pointedly. This permits the child to come to grips with the problem in its most essential form, where a more complex plot would confuse matters for him. The fairy tale simplifies all situations. Its figures are clearly drawn, and details, unless very important, are eliminated. All characters are typical rather than unique.”
This is a very important distinction between fairy tales and fiction for children. In fiction for children, characters are described with many nuanced details of biography and personality, giving them three-dimensional life. We feel that we know a friendly and cheerful little boy like Wilbur, the pig in  Charlotte’s Web. Many of us have met a prickly and defensive kid on the wrong side of the child welfare groups, a Gilly from Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins. We know precociously wise girls like studious Hermione Granger, and good-natured, loyal goof-buddies like Ron Weasley, Harry Potter’s sidekicks. One of the reasons kids are attracted to these books is because they are attracted to the characters, who are particular people (even if sometimes they are animals) and as such could be people they might meet or come to know.

On the other hand, fairy tales offer not characters but situations, the existential dilemmas of the above Bettelheim excerpt. We don’t want real-seeming characters in them, because we want to inhabit them ourselves, for a while. The “characters” in fairy tales are more like masks that we can try on to see how it feels. We don’t really know much of anything about Cinderella’s personality, but we can try on what it feels like to be rejected and excluded and abused, and then rewarded.

“Today [1975!] children no longer grow up with the security of an extended family, or of a well-integrated community. Therefore, even more than at the time fairy tales were invented, it is important to provide the modern child with images of heroes who have to go out into the world all by themselves and who, although originally ignorant of the ultimate things, find secure places in the world by following their right way with deep inner confidence.”

After all, isn’t this what we mean when we talk about courage? Deep inner confidence is certainly what I wish for my child, when she sets off in the world to seek her fortune. She has already had to walk through a pretty dark forest to get this far, and will have more dangerous terrain ahead. I hope that all the many stories we’ve shared will help light her way. Is she, and are the rest of today’s children, more in need of fairy tales than 1975’s children? I don’t know; I just know that all children need them, just as they need good novels with individualized characters, and family stories, and heroes from history. We may be living in the 21st Century, but I believe we need to bring the fairy tales with us into the future.  Einstein agreed, and who am I to argue with him?

The Flyaway Lake

In my mouth the words are melting
From my lips the tones are gliding
From my tongue they wish to hasten
When my willing teeth are parted
When my ready mouth is opened
Songs of ancient wit and wisdom
Hasten from me not unwilling
Golden friend, and dearest brother,
Brother dear of mine in childhood
Come and sing with me the stories
Come and chant with me the legends,
Legends of the times forgotten
Since we now are here together
Come together from our roamings…
~ the Kalevala

Let me open the painted box of stories, and tell you of a lake that did not like where it was or who befouled it, and so flew to a better place.

In Estonia, a northern land on the Baltic Sea with many islands, there was a lake, called Eim Lake. It was surrounded by woods, and legend said that the bottom of this lake was covered with golden treasure. People who would rather fish for treasure than work for pay often went out in boats, dredging for gold. When their efforts did not pay off, they took to waylaying travelers in the nearby woods, and robbing them. Over time the woods around this lake developed an evil reputation; the forest became dark and overgrown, and weeds and reeds choked the edges of the lake. No crops grew by its shores, nor cattle or sheep drank its waters. Before long the bandits were doing more than simply robbing the anxious travelers who had no choice but to pass through the woods; before long the bandits were killing them, and dumping their bodies into the lake. Eim Lake grew foul, and under sunset skies it was a dull, blood red. Trash and litter from the bandit camp on the lakeshore drifted here and there in the stagnant water. Geese would not fly over, nor land there.

One night, as the bandits lay sleeping in their tents, there was a sloshing, sucking sound. The lake was gathering itself and all its fish, and was lifting itself up, as a lady lifts her long skirts from the mud. Up it rose from its muddy, stagnant bed, leaving behind the filth of rot and death. The clear waters with rejoicing fish gathered into the air like a cloud, scattering a few drops onto the bandit-tents. The one look-out, holding out his hand for rain, glanced up. But the dark sky was pierced with stars – only one dark shape obscured them, and it was moving swiftly away. The overpowering odor of decat drew his attention to the lake bed, which was now a stinking trough of mud. “The lake has flown away!” he cried. “Now we can hunt for treasure on foot!”

The bandits waited until morning, and then trudged across the sucking mudflats, captivated by the sight of rotting chests and boxes. But when they reached the treasure caskets what did they find but only frogs and salamanders and snakes and eels, which wriggled after them, biting wetly and squirming into their pockets.

Meanwhile, the lake was traveling, looking for a place to land. Below was a dry, parched land, and the people stood with prayerful eyes turned to the skies. “A raincloud!” cried one child. “No, not a cloud,” said his father in amazement. “A floating lake of clear water! Please, come to us, lake!”

“Will you tend to me, and keep my shores free of weeds, and make birds welcome?” called the voice of the lake.  “Make a place for me and I will dwell here.”

The people dug with everything they had, shovels, rakes, buckets, spoons, clearing away a clean bed for the lake. With the sound of steady rain, Eim Lake poured itself down into its new place. The grateful people tended the lake like a baby, and kept it clean, and built wooden docks and grazed their sheep there and let its waters nourish their crops. The land all around the lake became fruitful, and beautiful, and the people were filled to the rim with gratitude, as pouring water fills a cup.

This is an unusual story, isn’t it? It’s from the Kalevala, the ancient epic poem of Finland/Estonia. I’ve never before heard a story about a lake with opinions and made decisions, let alone got up and left, so this really caught my attention.  You can read it as a metaphor for relationship, and observe that it takes emotional courage to leave a person or a job that has become abusive, and then be willing to try again somewhere new.  But I also love that you can read this is a story about gratitude and good stewardship. Spiritual courage allows us to recognize and give thanks for all the natural gifts that make life possible and meaningful. May we have the courage to do our best at tending all our natural resources, lest they decide to fly away.

Courage Book Review – “I will stir up the waters of the old days and shape the long-ago then into now.”

BeowulfToday’s offering is a great retelling of Beowulf. This version is subtitled, A Hero’s Tale Retold, and was written and illustrated by James Rumford. What is particularly appealing about this retelling for kids is that Rumford tells the story using only words that have entered English from Anglo-Saxon roots. This gives the book something of the gristle and chewiness of the original poem. Words and phrases such as “fire-hearted” “locklike” “gold-shining” and “over the wide whale sea,” give this Beowulf real guts. Rumford acknowledges a debt of inspiration to Seamus Heaney’s masterful and muscular translation of Beowulf. The illustrations are full of writhing, serpentine forms and dark cross-hatching, making the art both dynamic and somber, much like the story itself.  It sounds wonderful read out loud.

But why, you might ask read this story to kids? What does a monster tale from more than a thousand years ago have for our kids today? Isn’t the super-hero with sword and shield a bit too retro in this information age?  Isn’t this just something English literature majors have to get through in college?

Certainly, this ancient predecessor to so many popular stories (did someone say Lord of the Rings?) is one of the gold standards for physical courage tales. In an age when smiting and smashing were regular activities, this sort of courage was highly prized; of course the heroism of physical courage would be celebrated with poems and sagas. Along with physical courage, Beowulf also upholds honor in repaying debts of service, and in protecting the people in his care; we may call this moral courage.

What may make this classic important to share with kids today is precisely its super-hero, almost one-dimensional physical courage. This foundational piece of English literature may have helped to shape cultural ideas of what courage is, what heroism is. Do we see intellectual courage here? Spiritual courage? Social or emotional courage? No. But can stereotypes offer us a lens for examining our own ideas and beliefs? Yes. Like metaphors, another literary tool, stereotypes allow us to grapple with complex ideas and make meaning of our own experience.

Beowulf: A Tale of Blood, Heat, and AshesAnother version for kids is Beowulf: A Tale of Blood, Heat, and Ashes, adapted by Nicky Raven. This is illustrated by one of the lead artists from the Lord of the Rings movies, John Howe. The writing lacks the Anglo-Saxon punch of Rumford’s telling, but the obvious visual debt of LOR to Beowulf demonstrated in the art makes it an interesting companion to the Rumford book. Share these two with your kids, and follow up with a conversation about physical courage, and whether that’s the only kind of courage that makes a hero.

You might also enjoy Heaney’s translation for yourself, which includes the original text opposite the translation.  Try reading it out loud for a vocal workout!  You can almost understand these chewy words if you hear them spoken.  Sit by a smoky fire in semi-darkness for the best effect!

A Spectrum of Attachment: Beth’s Story

Understanding attachment as the first step to ensuring our children develop the capacity for emotional, physical, intellectual, spiritual, and moral courage has naturally got me thinking not only about my own experiences bonding with my babies, but also about other caregiver-infant pairs I know.  Take my dear friend Beth, for example, mother of four, marathon runner, and trained social worker.  She says, “Bonding with each of my children was vastly different.”  “Really?” I ask.

“With my first child,” Beth explains, “I was so young, so immature.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  I had an emergency C-section, little time to bond during the first few hours’ post-op, little support upon our homecoming, and she was colicky during a summer heat wave!  It was hard.  I still have regrets.” 

She continues, “My second child was way easier.  I had a successful vaginal birth.  My baby was so round and wonderfully calm and easy.  It was a cinch.” 

And then Will was born.  Dear, sweet Will.  Tears rim Beth’s eyes, as she recalls—with difficulty—the moments of his birth.  “As soon as he was born, he was whisked away and treated like an emergency.  I had no idea what was going on.  Neonatologists, geneticists, and all manner of specialists swarmed around him, plugging wires into him that blocked my access and ability to bond.  Needless to say, I knew it was serious, but I hadn’t even laid eyes on him yet.  And, when I sat in a wheelchair outside the nursery window later, I didn’t want to love him.  I couldn’t.  We were told he would never know us, never likely respond, and not live longer than a few years.” 
Will was born with a rare genetic condition called CdLS, Cornelia DeLonge Syndrome, named for the geneticist who first identified this devastating syndrome.  You can learn more about CdLS here
Beth and her husband disregarded the experts’ predictions and recommendations, took Will home and started calling around for help—anyone and everyone who was willing to offer advice, help, medical support.  I point out that the most common attribute shared amongst resilient people is their ability to create and reach out to community and get the necessary social support during tough times.  She is reminded of what most social workers and agency personnel told her when she called:  “You are the first person we know to be calling so early, and so often, in this process with your child.”   She wants me to know, “It was so scary and overwhelming bringing him home.  But somehow our love got us though.” 

It probably doesn’t need to be said, but Beth does note that with her fourth child, she never let her leave her arms. “It was a joke amongst the maternity ward nurses, ‘Are you going to let us see the baby at least once before you leave this hospital?’”

Beth’s life changed dramatically the day Will was born.  Today, she works tirelessly to raise money and awareness for the CdLS foundation and became a marathon runner for the explicit purpose of raising funds for the CdLS foundation, thus having the endurance to be the loving mama she is with all her children.  You can find out more about how to sponsor this important fundraising effort here


As Beth and I walk our dogs and sip our Starbucks lattes, I ask her how she thinks she managed to bond with Will.  “You know, it wasn’t until I could hold him in my arms.  As soon as he was finally placed in my arms, I looked down and said ‘Okay buddy, you win.  I love you’.  I couldn’t help loving him.”  It is all a bit of a blur for Beth, even today. Will is, remarkably, twenty years old now!  Beth knows they bonded because hers were the arms where Will relaxed and stopped crying.  Though he has never uttered her name, watching them give each other some loving is beautiful to behold.  She still hopes he gains comfort in her presence. It’s obvious what courage she’s gained in his.  It’s obvious that she is securely attached to this boy-man who plays piano, navigates darkened rooms through a kind of echolocation due to his blindness, has endured countless operations and emergency room visits, and managed this past year to attend his school prom. 

Beth and I conclude our discussion with two discoveries:  

First: it wasn’t until Will was in her arms and able to bond, that she could love him.  It is their family love that clearly contributes to Will’s continued survival. 

Second: that in our shining moments of courage we rarely give ourselves credit…we continue to compare our insides with others’ outsides.  We tend to find examples of people coping with the same pain or courage challenge, but dealing with it better.  We think of the exceptions and the exceptional—the Lance Armstrongs of the world. 

Why do we begrudge ourselves our most human, vulnerable moments and force ourselves to be better?  Perhaps it is those very shining examples of courage that encourage us all to be better.  If only we could let others inspire us with a little more compassion for ourselves, we might soon discover we are the true hero or heroine in our own story!


Beckett, C., Maughan, B., Rutter, M., Castle, J., Colvert, E., Groothues, C., Kreppner, J., & Stevens, S., O’Connor, T., Sonuga-Barke, E. (2006). Do the effects of early severe deprivation on cognition persist into early adolescence? Findings from the English and Romanian adoptees study. Child Development, 77, (3), 696 – 711.
Southwick, S. M., Vythilingam, M., & Charney, D.S. (2005).  The psychobiology of depression and resilience to stress:  Implications for prevention and treatment. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 255-291. doi: 10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.1.102803.143948

Win a book for your brave child!

Wise at Heart: Children and Adults Share Words of Wisdom

Thank you to Susan Raab of Raab Associates, who sent us a copy of this gorgeous book, Wise At Heart: Children and Adults Share Words of Wisdom, with contributions by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jane Goodall, Tom Hanks, Walter Cronkite, et al.  This is a beautiful book of photographs with inspiring and encouraging words from children and elders.  We love how it speaks so eloquently to the theme of this blog, and we’d love to pass it on to your family, school or library.
Who gets it?  Share your child’s lion painting with us!  We’ll put the painting on the site and send you the book, but we only have one copy, so it will have to go to the first person who sends us a scan or photo.  Please use the email link on the right side of the page where it says “Share your courage stories with us.”

Courage Challenge of the Day

Lion’s Whiskers offers this courage challenge: Is there someone you need to forgive?  Or that your child needs to forgive? 

Do an activity that may at least start you and/or your child in the right direction towards forgiveness.  For example, write the person a letter (with intention of sending it), send the person mental wishes for well-being, light a candle and ask for the strength to forgive, plant a flower in the person’s memory if he/she is no longer in your/your child’s life).

Now, it’s your turn.  What’s a true story from your life of forgiveness, or emotional courage, that we could all benefit from hearing?  What ritual do you suggest when needing to forgive?

The Path to Courage: Irena Gutowa’s Story

Coming up soon is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, so my post is dedicated to one of my own heroes, rescuer Irene Gut Opdyke. About twelve years ago, I had the honor of co-authoring the war memoir of this amazing woman. Irene (Irena Gutowa) was born in Poland, and was a teenager when World War II began. I won’t retell the entire journey here. Let me paraphrase it by saying that even though she had been separated from her family and was essentially without resources or any power, she saved many Jews from the Holocaust. She worked as a waitress and then a housekeeper, and hid Jews in the basement of her Nazi boss’s house and smuggled others from a nearby work camp to the forest.  When Poland was “rescued” by the Soviet Union she joined the Polish partisans. Eventually she emigrated to the U.S. and married, and lived the American Dream. For many years, that dream meant putting the war and all its horrors behind her. However, prompted by rumors that people thought the Holocaust was an exaggeration, she began telling her story. She spent the last fifteen years of her life tirelessly traveling the United States to speak about what she had witnessed. Her favorite audience was high school students, and they always adored her.
What drew me to her story in the first place was not just the drama, but her youth at the time of her story. As a writer for children and teens, I felt compelled to learn from her how a young person in her circumstances became a hero. “You must understand that I did not become a resistance fighter, a smuggler of Jews, a defier of the SS and the Nazis all at once. One’s first steps are always small: I had begun by hiding food under a fence,” was her reply.

The moral courage she demonstrated with each choice she made, step by step, beggars belief. Yet, she often indicated to me that doing nothing would have been harder than acting, even though her actions put her in constant danger.  Her path was always clear to her, even though it was incredibly perilous.  As I wrote the other day in my retelling of the Norse myth of Fenrir the wolf, doing the right thing often pushes us into danger, and physical courage must hold hands with moral courage.
So how does it work? What kind of childhood did she have that she could show such courage when the crisis came? What were the steps that made this her path? 
This was what I tried to tease out during our interviews with so many questions about what her life was like before the war.   What opportunities did her parents provide for her to learn courage? What example did they set themselves? The answer may surprise you. Or maybe not. The lesson that her parents offered to her again and again was compassion in action. Irena and her sisters were raised to offer help to anyone less fortunate than themselves. The social, emotional, spiritual and moral courage her parents showed by taking food to the sick, rescuing wounded animals, inviting lonely neighbors to dinner, or advocating for better treatment of outcasts were exemplary. They never looked away when they saw pain or need.
On top of that, Irene had an extremely loving family. She spoke constantly of how much she loved her mother and father and how much she admired them and wanted to honor them, and of how close her relationship to her four sisters was. If Lisa is right, we have in Irene an example of how secure attachment may well have helped to lay the foundations of courage. Ironically, it was because she was separated from her family during the war that Irene said she was able to act as she did. Putting her family at risk might have held her back. Putting herself at risk never did.
So her first choices, her first steps on this heroic path, were natural ones when you look at  her childhood as the starting point. Had there been any anticipation that such a crisis was looming? No, not to her family of educated, middle class Poles who lived with a comforting assumption of “civilization.” But the foundation for courage had been laid, and when the crisis did come Irene made her first small choice in response, and took her first small step of witness and rescue. Then the second choice, the second step, was obvious, and the third and so on, until she was doing what many people can’t imagine doing.  As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  We rarely can imagine ourselves at the end of the journey, but we can imagine ourselves taking one step. 
We cannot know what the future will bring us, but of some things we can be certain: challenges will stand in our children’s way when we may not be able to protect them, despite our strongest parental impulses to shield them, as a tree shelters the birds among its branches. Some of those challenges will be outright crises, be they natural disasters or human ones. I am mindful that many of the readers of this blog are living through crisis right now – political,  medical, environmental or financial – and I am humbled to think they feel we have something to offer them. My prayer when my head hits the pillow each night is to protect my daughter from all harm. My vow when I rise each morning is to protect her by giving her the tools she needs to build courage, so that when I am not able to shelter her, she will have the kind of courage that Irene had.
Irene died several years ago. I hope that the tree planted in her honor in Israel lives for many many years, giving shade, being a support, providing shelter. She was a great hero.