I’ve been thinking about emotional courage, and the struggle we have, as parents, to encourage our kids to do things on their own. Lisa has explained this beautifully in her posts about internal vs. external locus of control. Ironically, although we want our children to learn to look within themselves when they want to accomplish something, one aspect of emotional courage is having the courage to ask for and accept help. Yes, we want to teach the kids is to discern the difference between needing help and not really needing help. Much of the time, when K. asks for help, she doesn’t really need help, she just doesn’t want to put in the effort or she wants company or attention – she has some other need that isn’t really a need for assistance with the task at hand.
Leaving aside for the moment how we discover and answer what the true need actually is, I want to follow this idea of knowing when you really need help, and how you find the courage to ask for it in a successful way – especially when we have become proud of our ability to do things ourselves. Lisa has talked about this in her Push-Pull Factor. I’ve tried to make a point of saying things along the lines of, “If I know you can manage it yourself I’d like you to give it a go. If it’s something you really can’t manage on your own I will help you. That is my job.” Or when she hands me something and says, “Will you hold this for me?” I will say, “Is there a reason you can’t put it down on the table we are standing at?” I’m trying to get her to notice for herself if she really needs my service at this particular moment or if it’s actually something else she wants.
That being said, I also want her to know that she should not hesitate to ask me if she really does need help. My job is to be ready to respond quickly to an authentic need, especially if she hasn’t yet figured out that she does need help. It’s a bit like being a life guard, I suppose. There you sit by the pool, doing nothing at all but observing, until someone starts choking and flailing. That’s when you jump in, not before.
I’ve looked for stories that demonstrate asking for and accepting help, but before I get to those I want to mention a good story about when not to ask for help, and that’s The Boy Who Cried Wolf. In the first few months that K. was home from Ethiopia she had a couple of laughs at my expense by putting on a show of crying and sobbing to see if I would come running – which I did. I suppose it was important to her to know I was paying attention, but I had to nip that behavior in the bud. Calling 911 for a frivolous reason can land you in jail; a few tellings of TBWCW seemed to get us past that issue.
Anyway, as for stories about asking for or accepting help: a very common tale type from around the globe is the “animal helper tale,” and these stories frequently involve the hero accepting help from an animal whose capacity to help seems rather dubious – a mouse, a bird, a frog, etc. I found this one in the Usborne Book of Myths and Legends, and it’s from Africa, although I’m afraid I haven’t been able to track down where, exactly. Congo region is my closest guess. I have retold it in very condensed form; when you retell it, please go ahead and add details that you know will delight your child. If you are unsure how to do this, please read my post on how to tell a story.
There is a village that the sun does not shine upon, because a neighboring chief down the river has stolen the sun. The people of this dark village miss the sun and wish they could have it back again, and a brave young man, Mokele, offers to find it and bring it back. As he begins to build himself a canoe for the journey, the wild animals come to him and ask to go along to help because they miss the sun, too; we have excellent hearing, say the wasps, I have good eyesight and can find things, says the turtle. A leopard comes, a bird of prey comes – eventually the canoe is filled with animals with hardly any room for Mokele, who has welcomed them all in a most gracious way on this mission. When they reach the neighboring village Mokele begins negotiating with the chief for a price to return the sun; this chief does not want to give up the sun, but is frightened by the leopard into agreeing to decide a price. When he goes off to consider how to get out of this promise, he tells his daughter to make a poisoned drink to give Mokele – but the wasps have flown behind and listened to that plot, and they warn Mokele. Meanwhile the other animals have begun searching for the sun, and the turtle finds the sun in a cave and pulls it out. The bird of prey flies the sun back up into the sky, the daughter falls in love with Mokele, and the young man and the young woman return with the animals to their village, where the sun is shining brightly for everyone again.
Returning the sun to the sky is a pretty big job, and I think that Mokele was wise to know he would need help. He showed courage and initiative to volunteer for the job, but he didn’t claim to be able to do it alone.