Monthly Archives: September 2011

Courage Challenge of the Day

Lion’s Whiskers offers this courage challenge: As an opportunity to put your moral courage muscles to work, take a pet peeve and trace its origins.  If you find yourself complaining about hiked gas prices, consider the choices in your life that have made you dependent on your automobile.  When you are annoyed by another’s behavior, consider how that behavior may mirror something that you deny, don’t accept, or don’t like in yourself.  For example, if you find yourself complaining about how long your child takes to get ready in the morning, is it possible that you, too, are not a morning person?  Is it possible that you might need to wake up a little earlier and/or help your child the night before to ease the morning routine?  Perhaps you find yourself complaining about people who ignore local bylaws and don’t pick up their dogs’ poop, forgetting the times you, too, were caught without a poop bag? 

Tracing your own responsibility for what goes on in the world will help you teach your child to do the same.  None of us lives in a bubble – our lives are connected in an intricate web of decisions and choices.  For a humbling example of how our kids offer us daily opportunities to put this moral courage challenge into practice, read Lisa’s post What Goes Around, Comes Around!

Care to share one of your pet peeves and what its origins might have to do with you? 

The Rule of Threes

“Third time’s the charm,” goes the saying. This, in a nutshell, is the Rule of Threes, an almost universal pattern in storytelling. Three wishes, three wise men, three billy goats gruff, three sisters, three brothers, three little pigs – when you begin to notice, you will see threes everywhere in traditional stories.


It is now well-understood that humans are pattern-making and pattern-seeking creatures. This cognitive behavior helps us learn that Chihuauas, Great Danes and Basset Hounds are all dogs, for instance. It helps us with predictions: when the heat and humidity and air pressure build on a summer day we prepare for a thunderstorm. This behavior can also lead us astray, tricking us into seeking significance or meaning in random events, or can give rise to superstitions (such as “bad luck comes in threes.”) For good or for ill, we look for patterns.

The smallest number of units that can create a pattern is three. One is an individual. Two might be a coincidence. Three sets the pattern. Thus, the number three is the most efficient and compact (and thus the most memorable) number of elements for establishing something as significant. The ancient Greeks even had a term for this – the tricolon. The tricolon creates special emphasis: on your mark, get set, go; ready, willing, and able; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; healthy, wealthy and wise; of the people, by the people, for the people; the good, the bad, and the ugly. The list goes on and on – and on!

In comedy, the rule of threes is used to set up jokes, usually by breaking the pattern on the third go, and thus creating humor out of the surprise. In stories, the rule of threes allows us to anticipate that the third try, the third brother, the third wish – whatever it is – will be the one to resolve the story.

When you are telling stories (traditional tales or family stories) around the dinner table, or in the car, or on a walk, you can use the rule of threes to your advantage. Whatever part of the story you want to highlight, put a tricolon in there! The third part of the tricolon will usually be the most memorable. “The king was handsome, brave and generous,” is actually different from “The king was brave, generous and handsome,” which is different from, “The king was handsome, generous and brave.” Or how about introducing a family story with, “My aunt Mary was tall, stubborn and greedy,” versus, “My aunt Mary was stubborn, greedy, and tall.” In the first, we expect greediness to be the main feature of the story, in the second, we expect her height to be the main feature.

Naturally, as we are concerned with developing courage, I suggest you can use the rule of threes to emphasize the courageous aspects of your stories. Have fun with your threes!

Three Billy Goats Gruff

Mention the words “courage” and “stories” in the same breath and someone will ask, “Are you going to tell the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff?”

Yes. Yes I will.

This tale from Norway, by the way, is an excellent story to tell by acting it out. If you happen to have three kids you can direct them in a play. If you don’t know the story, don’t worry – the part you are to play will become quite clear!

On a fine summer day, three billy goats gruff looked up at the hillside across the stream and decided the grass looked very nice over there. So the youngest billy goat set out across the wooden bridge, trip-trap-trip. Beneath the bridge lived one of the ugly trolls who dwell in the mountains of Norway, and he pulled himself up onto the bridge by his hairy hands, his long warty nose all a-wobble. “Who’s that crossing my bridge? I’ll eat you up!”

The first billy goat pointed his little horns back the way he had come. “No, wait for the second billy goat. He’s bigger than I am. Let me pass.” And he scampered the rest of the way over the bridge and onto the green hillside.

The second billy goat now stepped onto the bridge, trip-trap-trip. “Who’s that crossing my bridge?” roared the troll. “I’ll eat you up!”

“No, no!” bleated the second billy goat. “Wait for my big brother, he’s much bigger than me!” And off he trotted to the green hillside.

Now the third and biggest billy goat stepped onto the bridge. TRIP-TRAP-TRIP. “Who’s that crossing my bridge!” bellowed the troll. “I’ll gobble you up!”

“I AM CROSSING YOUR BRIDGE!” shouted the third billy goat, “AND YOU’RE NOT EATING ANYONE!” And lowering his head, he charged the troll. With his big curling horns he poked the troll’s eyes out and with his big sharp hooves he trampled the troll to bits and kicked him off the bridge. That was the end of that particular troll, swirling away in pieces down the mountain stream.

And then the third billy goat gruff went to join his brothers in the green grass meadow.

Notice that this story makes no apology for killing the troll. In stories, monsters are to be destroyed, be they dragons or trolls or giants or wolves – or man-eating sharks. Much like Beowulf or Jaws, this is a straightforward story of physical courage. It’s highly satisfying!

About Stories

“There is a certain embarrassment about being a storyteller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics; but in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells.”

                                                      ~ Flannery O’Connor

Courage is Not the Absence of Fear

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. ~ Ambrose Redmoon

As parents, we are often faced with the decision to put the welfare of our children above that of our own.  Being a courageous parent can range from rescuing your child from near death or other peril, to fighting for your child’s right to feel safe at school and not bullied, to telling the truth about your decision to separate, to holding your child’s hand at their hospital bedside, to canceling that belated wedding anniversary vacation (the first one in 10 years) due to your child’s unexpected flu bug, to waking each morning early to ensure that you keep your job and your child has shelter, food, and the many other necessities modern life now seems to require.  Any number of opportunities present themselves everyday to us as parents to muster and model the six types of courage.  Sometimes we even fail to recognize what courage it takes to be a parent.  It takes courage to walk through the fears about our own eclipsed needs after deciding to have a child.  To accept the risks associated with loving another human being so fully and completely that they one day walk out our front door with the keys to their own castle in hand (God willing). Courage is telling the truth about who we are, apologizing when we mess up, and loving ourselves and our child in the process. 
As a child and family therapist, I frequently witness the courage and compassion parents have in advocating for their mentally ill child, their child who struggles in school because of a learning disorder, their obese child facing long-term health issues if they don’t lose some weight, or their child banished to the outskirts of social acceptance due to the arbitrary judgment of an individual or group with more social cache.  I see the heartbreak on these parents’ faces when their child is called fat, gay, stupid, or weird.  Then, I witness the tears brushed away and the smile return to greet their child’s gaze with unconditional love.  The child, in turn, is looking for that acceptance as fuel for their own courage to face the battles they must.  Sometimes as parents we feel powerless about what to do to help our child through a tough time.  But it is the decision to keep moving forward, digging together for solutions in the dark, that inspires our children to have faith in the kindness of others, hope for their future, and to develop the necessary courage associated with resilience. 

We don’t have to have all the answers.  No one does.  We just need to keep moving through fear towards hope.  When I work with children who are anxious and afraid of the dark, I learned from a fellow therapist to bring in flashlights, nightlights, candles, and those sweet little Guatemalan worry dolls (they disappear worries while tucked under pillows at night) to help make friends with the dark.  As parents, sometimes we need to call in reinforcements, ask for help ourselves, and make friends with our own fears so we can be present, brave, and our child’s own personal hero or heroine.  As parents, we are the light that can shine when our child’s world seems dark, when the monsters under the bed give fright, and no one at school seems friendly. 

I remind myself each day that having courage does not necessarily end worry or disappear fear.  Courage is the catalyst by which we move beyond fear and into faith.  We may not know exactly the right words to say when our child is sad or anxious or unhappy.  But, we can decide to push aside our petty worries and pernicious fears.  We can tell stories from our own life to offer comfort and perhaps even some inspiration.  We can hold their hand and just breathe together through the pain and confusion.  We can place our trust in the fact that as in nature, after darkness comes light.

Part of the purpose of this blog is to collect stories from parents like you, about how you nurture courage in your children.  I am curious what has required you to have courage as a parent?  What have you found powerful and helpful in teaching your own child about courage?  How has your child inspired courage in you?  If you’d like to be interviewed, too, please send me an email: 
We’d love to hear from you!
For more inspiration, read some of my previous profiles of parental courage: 

What Animals Can Teach Us About Pain

“I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things

“He who fears to suffer, suffers from fear.” French proverb

“There are more things that frighten us than injure us… and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.” Seneca
Anyone who has adopted a child in another country knows that obtaining a visa means getting a blood test and any missed vaccinations for the child. My daughter was eight when I adopted her; I went with her to the American embassy in Addis Ababa for a blood test, and the episode turned out to be the first of many frantic and nearly-hysterical encounters with needles. Without going into detail I will just say she had to be restrained. Upon returning to the States, I had to take her for more shots to bring her up to date. I always struggled to decide if it was better to warn her that there was a needle waiting for her at the doctor’s office, or let it come as a nasty surprise. I wanted her to trust that I would be honest with her, that I wouldn’t trick her, and yet the anticipation of the shot produced such distress that it seemed cruel to prolong it by an advance warning.
At twelve, she is calmer and less prone to tears at the doctor’s office. “But it does hurt,” she reminds me grimly.
“Not as much as getting hit by a truck,” I reply.
The answer to this is a glare.
“Well it doesn’t hurt as much as getting hit by a truck,” I say. “And I should know.”

The fact is I was actually hit by a truck a few years ago. A careless young man drove through a stop sign and hit me as I was crossing the street to go to the public library. Fortunately (if you can call anything about this adventure fortunate) I didn’t see him coming. I heard a sound, and had time to think That sounds like a person being hit by a car, and the next thing I knew, paramedics were strapping me onto a backboard and an ambulance was wailing its way toward the library.

The pain that was the main feature of this story didn’t start until this moment, and of course there was plenty of it. But what I’ve tried to share with the Lovely K. is that because I wasn’t expecting it, there was no fear involved. There was no anticipation of the pain to come.
I try to make this clear whenever we take one of our pets to the vet for a check-up. “Will it hurt her?” K. asks nervously, knowing a shot is due.
“She doesn’t know it’s going to happen,” I point out. “So she’s not fretting.”
Our vet is always up-beat about it. “It’s not much more than a mosquito bite,” she’ll say, grabbing a pinch of skin on the cat’s or dog’s neck. The animal looks around in surprise, and then it’s already in the past.
This is why I try to schedule vet visits for when my daughter can go with me. If she can really wrap her mind around the difference between pain and anticipating pain, she’ll be a lot more free. She’ll recognize that most of what we experience as pain is actually the fear of pain, our uncertainty about how bad it will be and how long it will last. But pain cannot be experienced when it’s over. We can remember that it hurt, but we cannot feel the pain again in our memory. I can close my eyes and picture this morning’s sunrise, or hear in my memory the sound of K.’s voice wishing me a good day as she left for school; but I cannot feel again the headache I had last night – and mercifully, I cannot feel again the pain of a broken elbow, cracked eye socket, and deep lacerations that were the result of my car accident. Yet my thoughts about that pain make me wince even now.
Those thoughts take me out of this moment and into the past, and our children’s thoughts about future pain take them out of now and into moments yet to come. To be free, we must be like the wild things of the Wendell Berry quote, and give no forethought to grief. After all, much of the time the dragon we fear turns out to be less than a mosquito.

The Monkey’s Heart

Versions of this tale have been collected from many countries, including Korea, Japan, China, the Philippines, Tanzania and Kenya. Details change to suit local circumstances, but the gist of the story – and the payoff – remain the same. I’ve written before about the benefit of telling trickster stories. Here is a classic example of quick wits and intellectual courage in action.

Monkey loved mangoes, of course. Who does not? And his favorite mango tree had branches that reached out over a river, where a certain crocodile came quite often.

“Why do you come here, lurking and smirking?” Monkey asked one day, hanging just out of reach and eating a sweet piece of fruit.

“I come because one of these days you will slip,” Crocodile replied. “And I will catch you and take you to my king.”

Monkey laughed, and swung back up onto the branch. “Really? We’ll see about that!”

But Crocodile was patient, and one day, sure enough! – Monkey’s hands were slippery with mango juice and he fell sploosh! into the river.

“I have you now,” Crocodile said, tossing Monkey onto his bumpy back. “My king will be so pleased. A fortune-teller told him that if he ate a monkey’s heart he would live forever, and now I will be the one to deliver it to him!”

Monkey gasped. “Oh no! You’ve made a big mistake!”

“I’m sure you think so!” Crocodile said. “Now bid farewell to the world of trees and sky, and prepare to meet the world of mud and sunken bones at the bottom of the river.”

“You don’t understand,” Monkey continued, thinking fast. “I am honored to grant everlasting life to your king, but my heart is still in the tree!

The crocodile hesitated. “What’s that?”

Pointing to the mango tree, Monkey said, “I always take my heart out and put it on a branch before I pick fruit. I thought everyone knew that. If you just let me get it I’ll be glad to go with you.”

Crocodile thought about what would happen if he presented his king a monkey with no heart.   No, the king would not be pleased at all.  With one quick whip of his tail he lunged for the shore so Monkey could hop off. “Hurry!” Crocodile commanded.

Quick as thought, Monkey climbed to the highest branch of the mango tree and laughed so hard he got an ache in his side. “You fool!” he mocked. “Whoever heard of a monkey with no heart! Your king will have to wait a long time before he ever gets mine!”

Angry and embarrassed, Crocodile sank below the surface, leaving a trail of bubbles behind. He never returned to that part of the river, because whenever he came anywhere near, he could hear Monkey laughing, laughing, laughing…

Courage Book Review – treasures from Geraldine McCaughrean

The Golden Hoard: Myths and Legends of the WorldWe rank Geraldine McCaughrean among today’s most resourceful and exciting retellers of myths and legends from around the world.  Her vivid writing style makes her treasuries of stories gripping, funny, provocative, fascinating and beautiful.   In these books – The Golden Hoard: Myths and Legends of the World, The Silver Treasure: Myths and Legends of the World, The Bronze Cauldron Myths And Legends Of The World, and The CRYSTAL POOL: MYTHS AND LEGENDS OF THE WORLD –we have a dazzling variety of traditional tales, all gloriously illustrated by Bee Willey.  There are creation stories and trickster tales and stories of how stories came to be.  Above all, there are hero stories.  These stories of quests and courage show us how people from around the world told their tales highlighting all six types of courage.  Many of them may well be familiar favorites already, or at least ring some bells: St. George and the Dragon, Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow, Midas and the Golden Touch, the Golem, the Tower of Babel, William Tell, the Pied Piper and many others that readers may already recognize.  But there are also tales from cultures whose stories were once considered “quaint” or “curious” by Western readers.  Legends and folktales from New Zealand,  Melanesia, Bolivia, Finland, Togo and many many other places show us what is the same, and what is different, about how cultures portray courage.   I particularly liked the Hittite myth of the goddess Inaras conquering a family of dragons by feeding them until they were too fat to get back into their underground lairs.  As the old saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to conquer dragons.  These collections show us that in dazzling, delightful detail.   Great for reading aloud or handing to an independent reader. 
The CRYSTAL POOL: MYTHS AND LEGENDS OF THE WORLD (Illustrated Stories for Children)
The Bronze Cauldron Myths And Legends Of The WorldThe Silver Treasure: Myths and Legends of the World

5-Minute Courage Workout: Fair is Fair!

Compiled and written by Lisa and Jennifer:

“That’s not fair!” is a common complaint most of us will hear from our child at some point–especially if we have more than one and cake is involved.  Before we can teach our child what fairness is, revisiting the dictionary definition can be helpful.  Essentially, fairness entails decision-making that is free from bias and self-interest.  To be fair is associated with being honest, just, and equitable.  Favoritism and fairness don’t go hand in hand.  These are elements of moral courage, and it does indeed often take courage to suck it up and do the right thing!  What is fair does not always feel good or even make sense to a toddler or a teen.  It can be difficult to understand the difference between fair and equal.  Therefore, our children are looking to us to model what is fair to help guide them through those uncomfortable, confusing moments when doing the right thing doesn’t feel right.  Highlight the fact that justice is blind, but the scales always balance in the end. Trusting that fact takes practice and time.

Here’s a list of 5-Minute Courage Workouts by age range to help you and your child practice fairness.

 Grab Some Lion’s Whiskers Today!
  • Toddler:  The next time you notice that you’re losing your cool with your toddler because it had been a long day and the tantrums plentiful, put yourself in a safe, quiet time-out for five minutes.  If you employ this discipline distraction technique, having your toddler watch mommy or daddy sit quietly on the kitchen floor or in a favorite chair might suddenly make the concept of obedience and punishment seem fair.  Ensure your toddler is safe and occupied nearby, while you make time-in for yourself and take a few deep breaths.  Tell your toddler “Mommy needs to calm down and take a few deep breaths because I was raising my voice/got mad/or am feeling tired,” whatever the case may be.  Modeling this kind of equitable self-discipline might make your toddler feel that the rules are not biased quite so much in your favor as it may sometimes feel to them.   
  • PreschoolerRead Paul Galdone’s The Little Red Hen together at bedtime. This tale of an industrious hen and a lazy cat, dog, and mouse might inspire a discussion about the concept of giving versus getting.  Don’t be surprised if your child notices or points out the times when you were both the industrious hen and the lazy dog.   Remember that at this age your child probably places no judgement on some of the inconsistencies they notice in your behavior; they’re just gathering information about how the world works.   
  • Early Elementary: Introduce the “You cut and I choose,” rule to help level the playing field and minimize the often exhausting negotiations over who gets what piece of the pie.  The next time you are sharing a serving of food with your child, agree who will cut and who will choose the serving sizes.
  • Upper Elementary or Tween: Play the “What would you do?” game during dinner tonight.  Introduce a number of possible moral dilemmas pertaining to fairness from your own life experience, or theirs, or take from our following list of possibilities:  your teacher has left out the answer key to an upcoming math test on his/her desk, do you keep it to yourself, share it with a friend, do you return it to the teacher?; you know a kid at school who is cyberbullying another of your classmates (you also find this classmate annoying), would your reaction be any different if you are good friends with either party?; a friend invites you to a party, you say “Yes,” and then another friend invites you to what you think will be a better party for the same night;  your best friend gets interviewed by a TV news station and gets lots of attention about a project that you both worked on and put in an equal amount of effort into.  Encourage discussion about these scenarios and don’t assume what the right thing would be until you’ve debated the various pros/cons of possible “right” responses. Unknowingly loading the deck against your children during these kinds of discussions can quickly silence them and/or limit their engagement–especially if your child tends to think out loud and needs time to play with the idea of what he/she wants versus what he/she is learning about what is right and fair.
  • Teens: We may think we don’t make decisions based on self-interest or prejudice, but cognitive bias is a very real phenomenon that can often get in the way of fairness and impartiality.  Reinvent the classic “Coke versus Pepsi” taste test that most of us watched ad nauseam between after school TV specials when we were growing up.  Set up a test taste between your teen’s favorite national brand food or soda compared with the no-name brand.  Use a blind fold and challenge them to discover how brand versus taste focused they may actually be?  Fairness means giving each contender an unbiased, impartial try to be judged based on its own merits. 

Working on these skills may call upon different types of courage.  Review the Six Types of Courage to figure out which types your child might need to complete this workout.