Monthly Archives: March 2012

Courage Challenge: Be Prepared and Carry a Walking Stick!

Lion’s Whiskers offers this courage challenge:

As an opportunity to practice what it would be like to put your physical courage muscles to work, we recommend discussing some possible worst-case scenarios.  Part of helping your child to be courageous in life is to simulate solutions to both common and uncommon survival situations.  By knowing what to do and, as the Boy Scouts say “Be Prepared!,” your chances for survival increase exponentially.  We’ve had some fun writing this post.  We even found ourselves in hysterics at times imagining some of these scenarios and what we might do–especially if we didn’t have a walking stick with us.  But we hope that you will take this post seriously about how important it is to review some basic safety tips with your family.

As we’ve written about previously, we definitely don’t suggest marinating kids in fear.  There is a difference between talking about possible life-threatening scenarios and how to survive them, as opposed to passively listening to 24-7 newsfeed that can provoke anxiety unnecessarily.  What we are suggesting is that discussing survival skills, allowing your child to visualize him/herself as the possible hero in such situations, can help boost their confidence to deal with a larger and larger array of possible problems.  Stressing that these kinds of worst-case scenarios are rare will be very important, just as is your discretion with sharing certain of these scenarios depending on the age and particular stage of development of your child. Humor also helps defuse some of the stress when talking about fear-inducing situations! Avoiding talking about survival fitness, and burying our heads in the quicksand, can often perpetuate fear. 
Providing inspiring stories and helpful advice for how to handle some of life’s challenges–no matter how unlikely–can help us mentally rehearse and thus be better prepared to deal with fear-inducing situations.  As Jennifer has written about in “This is your Brain on Stories,” specific sensory and motor areas in the brain are activated not only through real-life experience, but also through simply listening to fictional or non-fictional stories and visualizing those story details.  Time and time again we hear about survivors of wild animal encounters, car/plane accidents, and natural disasters ascribing their survival to previously practiced safety drills.  Fire drills, like the ones we practice at school, help us all mentally rehearse how to react and problem-solve during an emergency, thus decreasing the probability of panic.  That’s why fire fighters and police officers routinely practice scenarios that will require quick thinking based on rehearsal–scenarios where fear can potentially override the kind of thinking required to save lives.
For example, U.S. Ski Team member Ani Haas encountered a black bear while jogging in a wilderness trail in Montana. Having previously learned the difference between how to survive an attack by a grizzly bear versus a black bear, she was able to automatically respond appropriately and survive the classic worse-case scenario of getting between a mama bear and her cub.  You can read the story of her survival here.  
You may be surprised by what your children already know–or not–about human survival.  Depending on where you live, certain scenarios will be necessary to practice either mentally and/or physically.  For example, if you have recently moved to a place where tornadoes are common, your kids will need to know what to do when the sirens go off.  When Lisa’s family moved from Canada to Upstate New York, for example, they didn’t know that you don’t bounce on the trampoline in a lightening storm.
With help from The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, by Josua Piven and David Borgenicht (1999), we offer the following dinner conversation starter for you and your family: Ask your kids what they think would be the best way to handle the following worst-case scenarios. 
1.  How do you escape from quicksand?
(Here’s the answer so you look kinda’ smart.  First off, you should be walking with a good walking stick.  If you don’t have a walking stick, good luck.  Pray your cellphone works underwater!  Plan B: Do you have a straw?  Okay, back to the facts.  When you start to sink you’re supposed to stay calm and not struggle.  You lay the walking stick on the surface of the quicksand and align your back on top of the pole.  Next you shift your body so the pole is eventually under your hips.  Your body and the pole will make a cross across the surface, as you begin to remove one leg and then the other from the pull of the quicksand.  Lastly, while floating on your back slowly, gently back paddle to the closest terra firma.)

2.  How do you fend off a shark attack?

(When you see a shark approach–let’s assume you are in the water and this is a problem–use anything you have to strike at the shark’s eyes or gills.  Stab, jab at will!They apparently don’t like to be punched in the nose though.)
3.  How do you escape from a bear?
(Recap: with a grizzly you play dead–cover your special bits.  With a black bear you get BIG–wave your arms, make a lot of noise, and don’t try to climb a tree.  When hiking in bear country, sing, dance, wear a bell on your back or fanny pack, or engage in any other kind of noise-producing merry-making.  Carrying a didgeridoo could also help, especially when quicksand might also pose a problem–remember scenario #1?)
4.  How to do get away from a swarm of buzzing bees?
(Run away! Don’t swat. Don’t jump into a body of water. In other words, this isn’t one of those cases where you lie really still on the ground, and jabbing at their eyes–all six of them–is futile. Just keep running! )
5.  What do you do in case of an earthquake?
(If you are inside, stay inside and get into a doorway, against an inside wall, or under a table.  If you are outside, get away from power lines, buildings, or anything else that could fall on you.  If you are driving, get out of traffic and off a bridge/overpass and stay inside your vehicle.  Don’t flail your arms outside your vehicle.  Don’t stop the car near a rocky hillside. Read our Courage Workout: Playing with Fire for more information.)
6.  How can you survive when lost in the wilderness?
(Recall ALL you can from watching Survivorman or Man, Woman, Wild, but not Survivor–’cause we know THAT’s not real!  Stay where you are.  Stay calm.  Create some shelter with any/all debris nearby, but without undue exertion – that can lead to sweating and dehydration.)
7.  How do you avoid being struck by lightening?
(This is a BIG problem in the U.S.–who would have known? We’ll assume you are outside in this scenario.  Don’t stand under a tree.  Do not take shelter under any structure that is made of metal, like a tower or flagpole.  Keep clear of water.  Don’t lie flat on the ground.  Kneel on all fours, with your head low–kinda’ like you would when praying for your life.  If, on the other hand, you are inside: avoid all plumbing and electrical appliances.
So, now it’s your family’s turn to generate a few more scenarios (especially those that may be highly applicable to where you live).  Use this conversation starter as an opportunity to review home and school safety guidelines.  Review the fire escape route in familiar environments, for example.  Remind the kids, as they spend more time home alone, about how to cook safely and what to do in the case of a stove fire.  Here’s an inspiring story about a Texas boy who saved his baby sister when he smelled smoke in his house (click here to read his story).  He attributed his quick thinking and survival to having learned fire safety in school. 

Letting Go: The Death of Ra

In the beginning all was darkness, but then came Ra, and he called all things into being. He was the first god-pharaoh, and he ruled in Egypt for thousands of years in human form. Over time, his human frame grew frail and weak. His head shook as he walked and he drooled like a baby. People whispered and laughed behind his back. His children, the deities Isis and Osiris, were impatient to take his place on the throne, but he would not relinquish it.

Isis was the greatest worker of magic in the world, but even she could wield no power over Ra without knowing his most secret name. He had many names for the many forms he had taken, but one was most secret and powerful of all, and he would not whisper it even to the last grain of sand at the root of a sand dune. Without that name, Isis could do nothing.

She waited. One day, as he stumbled down the path, drooling and trembling with age, she crept behind him and gathered some of the earth his spit had dribble on. Kneading the wet earth into a long snake, Isis set the lifeless thing upon the path. Only Ra could give life, so the earthen snake lay there until Ra stumbled past again. The moment the glance of his eyes fell upon it the cobra was filled with life, and it reared up and bit him in the heel. Ra fell, writhing in agony. As the poison worked its way through his body, the pain became even more intense.

“I can help you, Lord Ra,” said Isis. “But I must make the most powerful magic of all to cast out this poison, and for that I need your secret name.”

Ra hesitated, but at last the pain was more than he could bear, and he cried out his name to Isis. She immediately formed the magic that would rid him of pain. Ra staggered up from his bed, alive but more feeble than ever. At last he knew his earthly days must end.  He ascended to heaven in the form of the sun, and Isis and Osiris were able to become god-pharaohs in his place, and their son, Hathor, after them, with the sign of the cobra always on their foreheads.

Spiritual courage, as we have said on this blog, sustains us when we explore the most fundamental questions about purpose and meaning. Humility is one of the values that spiritual courage can help to activate: nobody lives forever, even the great Ra. To pretend otherwise actually robs us of the ability to appreciate the gifts we do have. There will be many generations to come after us, and we must hand on to them what has only been ours temporarily.

Fear of Flying: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Feeling!

My husband and I travel a lot with our kids.  They’ve ridden in planes, trains, automobiles, bike trailers, RVs, and a hot air balloon; on bicycles, ferries, kayaks, canoes, sailing boats, power boats, and inner tubes; by air, sea, river, lake, and land.  So it came as a bit of a shock when our daughter announced at age 8 that she would no longer fly in an airplane.  She would drive across country to visit our family that particular summer, but refused to fly.  Houston, we have a problem! 

Our daughter had officially joined the approximately one in six Americans who are afraid to fly.  Fear had her in its tight grip and wasn’t letting go anytime soon.  Problem was we were a few months away from flying home to visit our relatives in Canada.  We were not prepared to drive the over 3,000 miles again in our RV.  Two summers of such travel had worn us, and our somewhat anxious and diarrhea-prone dog, out!

Aerophobia, it turns out, is one of the top fears of most people.  The website indicates that approximately 1 in 23 people suffer from phobias, with nearly 11.5 million sufferers in the U.S. alone.  A quick search yields some 4,000+ titles devoted to the topic of overcoming fear of flying. 
What I’ve learned about children who fear flying is that they can learn that fear through the anxiety of a parent.  Aerophobia can also be triggered by watching some disturbing news or movies, reading a book featuring air tragedies, experiencing turbulence on a flight, or due to the death of a family member or friend (either in a plane crash or not), or by overhearing people talking about plane crashes or other anxiety-provoking stories.  We could all be more mindful that our kids are ALWAYS listening, whether they seem to be or not.  They hear and absorb the news we listen to on the way to school and work, or the TV news we leave on while we cook, or the conversations we have with friends on the phone.  Though it is always useful to discuss with children the origin of their fear; it can be often be difficult for them to recall or pinpoint the exact triggering event. 
My daughter’s fear of flying might not have been such a big deal except for the fact that we live across country from all our family!  The particular summer after she became a card-carrying aerophobic, we weren’t prepared to drive across country to accommodate her fear.  Given my training as a child/family and mental health therapist I also know full well that avoiding what we fear has a nasty way of not only perpetuating fear but also contributes to what is commonly termed (by mental health professionals anyway) “generalized anxiety.”  I wrote more about this topic in my last post, Making Friends with Fear. 

Here’s my interview with my daughter about her fear of flying.  I thought it would be helpful to get a kid’s perspective on how to combat fear–because in my experience, kids have a lot of clarity about life, and are most definitely some of the most inspirational people I know: 

Me: When did you first become afraid of flying?
My daughter:When I first heard the story of 9/11. I was about 8 and we had just moved to New York. A friend’s mom told me about it and I thought I would never want to be on a flight like that.  I couldn’t understand how someone could do something so terrible as fly a plane into a building.”
(My personal preference here is to always have these kinds of difficult discussions between a parent and child—but we may not always be our child’s loving bearer of bad news.  Debriefing news they may hear at school or on playdates or from older friends is important.  Share your perspective on tragic events like September 11th, your values and life-affirming beliefs, with the goal of reassuring your child of his/her safety).   
Me: What about the next flight you flew after becoming afraid? Can you remember the next flight was with me and your older brother going to visit family in Vancouver?
My daughter:I was just after my 9th birthday.  I had to work up the courage to fly.  I just thought about how beautiful it would be when we got to our destination. I just kept thinking of all the people I would get to see again.  We even flew a couple of those littler commuter planes for shorter times, which were kind of cool.”
Me: Do you remember that you wanted me to hold your hand and to give you some Rescue Remedy® gummies?  Do you think that helped?
My daughter:I don’t know.  Not really.  The Rescue Remedy® gummies were tasty and helped with chewing so my ears didn’t pop.  It helped more to think of positive things that I was looking forward to.
Me: Most recently, you flew with the most confidence I’ve seen in the past few years during our last winter vacation.  What do you think shifted?
My daughter:I just thought that my fear was just in my mind.”
Me: How did knowing that your fear was just in your mind help?
My daughter:Because then I knew it wasn’t real.  Which meant I could get over it in my mind. It was up to me to fix it.”
Me: You still wanted to hold my hand on the way to our destination, but do you remember saying to me on the way back “I don’t want to hold your hand this time ‘cause I’m going to fly with my big bro next summer on our own and I need pretend now that I’m okay, so I’ll be okay when it comes time to fly on my own”?
My daughter:Nope.” (Typical!)

Me: What made you decide to get over your fear?
My daughter:I wanted to be able to go on all sorts of family vacations.  I’d also like to someday fly without you guys, just with my big brother to visit family in Canada on our own.”

Me: If you were to offer some advice to another kid who was feeling afraid of flying, what would you tell them?

My daughter: Just think about what it will be like when you get to your destination.  Just focus on all the beauty around you, as you look around you on the plane.  Like the clouds and ocean you can see below you. I took a lot of really cool photos on our last trip.
Me: What do parents need to know about helping a child with a fear of flying?
My daughter:You can help them, but ultimately it is in their minds so there isn’t a lot you can do.  You just need to listen to them.  It helps to talk about it.  But not too much.  Just enough to let them know it is okay to be afraid sometimes.  Let them figure it out on their own, because if you try to fix it—which you can’t anyway—it won’t help them solve the problem on their own for the long-term.”
Me: Do you feel afraid anymore of flying?
My daughter:Nope.” (She’s 11 now.  It took some practice, with a few flights between ages 8 and 11 and visualizing herself someday being able to fly confidently, but I’m happy to report that she is a confident flyer today!)

For some tips on helping your child overcome his/her fear of flying read my follow-up post, “Scared of Flying No More!”

Does This Taste Funny to You?

Not long ago I wrote about the giddy pleasures of the tall-tale form in the wildly exaggerated physical courage of Pecos Bill. Today I want to say just a few words more about the trusty shield of cream pie to the face.
According to research cited in the New York Times, laughter produces endorphins. The physical act of laughing, like any vigorous exercise, triggers the release of this “feel-good” chemical in the brain. It just plain feels good to laugh. We relax, we find new friendships through humor, we lower our guard. In fact, the growing international movement known as “laughter yoga” is taking this powerful tool into schools, workplaces, leadership seminars, and community organizations all over the world as a way of combating stress and raising productivity. There doesn’t even have to be a joke – it’s not an intellectual process where we find something funny, and then we laugh. Just laughing (fake, forced laughing sustained for a few minutes) will lead to genuine laughter. You know you’ve succumbed to giggling fits, laughing for no reason until tears run down your face. Rather than a silly thing to do, it’s actually a powerful tool for promoting well-being.
Now consider what happens with fear and stress. The chemicals released by the brain under the influence of fear and stress are adrenaline and cortisol. These are the life-saving fight-or-flight hormones that prepare us to snatch children from the path of oncoming cars or withstand pain during emergencies. All our defenses are on high-alert, and when running away from a tiger, that’s a good thing. But chronic exposure, especially to cortisol, from daily stress and anxiety can have serious adverse effects on the body and on cognitive function.
Gallows humor has long been understood as a powerful antidote to danger, uncertainty and risk. Prisoners in concentration camps or POW camps, soldiers on the front lines, first-responders and emergency room personnel, and citizens of repressive regimes have always found comfort and respite in laughter. It is recognized as an element of resilience, a way to bolster courage despite dire circumstances. Rather than mocking or making light of a serious situation, gallows humor can offer the body a chance to recover its internal balance when the going gets rough.
So here’s the good news for Lion’s Whiskers readers. Children love to laugh. On the whole, children laugh way more than adults do every day, and that’s a wonderful thing. They are naturally equipped to boost their courage with the help of laughter. Does this mean you have to be a stand-up comedian or have an endless supply of knock-knock jokes?  No, but it is a reminder that sharing family stories with your kids, especially the “most embarrassing moments” ones, is a great way to let your guard down, strengthen family connection, and counteract the harmful effects of stress. Don’t wait for an anxious vigil outside the doctor’s office to tell a funny story – tell one to your kids today.

p.s. for anyone who wonders about the title of this post, it’s the punchline to a joke – two lions have caught a clown, and are eating him.  One says to the other, “Does this taste funny to you?”


Courage Book Review: Three Little Three Little Pigs

Know how you can tell this classic is about physical courage? All the huffing and puffing! Just as The Three Billy Goats Gruff had plenty of act-out-able bits, so does every version of The Three Little Pigs. Straw, wood, bricks – these are all parts of our physical experience (as opposed to tricks or puzzles, which are part of our intellectual experience). A big bad wolf who wants to eat you up is a physical risk. Physical courage may be the most easily recognized of the six types of courage, and so it is one that features in so many tales for the very young.

The Three Little Pigs have also been a mainstay of children’s book illustrator/retellers for many years, and today I offer a few words on a few notables from the Three Little Pigs’ Pen that should be readily available in libraries or stores.

Paul Galdone’s version from 1970 is a basic, friendly start. The trim size is small, making it comfortable for little hands. The story is straightforward and the illustrations are bright and dynamic. It’s perfectly satisfactory and we move briskly from one pig’s fate to the next. From 1989 we have the beloved James Marshall offering his trio of roly poly piggies, each dressed in a distinctive costume. I particularly like the pig who builds with sticks – he wears colorful, striped shorts, and his house is decorated with flags, balloons and wind chimes. The brick-building pig in this version looks like a London banker, with waistcoat and bowler hat. In this version, as in Galdone’s, the unfortunate straw-builder and stick-builder are both gobbled up. Both books end gleefully with the provident third pig gobbling up the wolf in turn.

Steven Kellogg’s 1997 version adds a subplot of a mobile waffle business that supports the pigs financially, and and enterprising mother pig who comes to the rescue at the end. Although the art and the subplot are both full of fun and interesting details, I would only share this with kids who are already well-versed in the story, for two reasons. For one thing, the subplot slows down the cadence of the main action. As you may recall from my post on The Rule of Threes, classic stories make use of triads to carry the emotional punch. It’s useful to keep that triad clear of clutter, however, so the pattern can emerge. The echoes of “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin,” and “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in,” should ideally still be in the air by the time the next round comes. The second reason I feel less than enthusiastic about this version is related to the internal v. external locus of control, which Lisa has explained so well in earlier posts. Mommy pig comes to save the day – emphasizing that forces outside of the little pigs are in control. It’s so much more satisfying to have the final pig (even if he is poignantly the last pig standing) be the one to thwart the big bad wolf and deliver revenge, as in the more traditional versions. That shows the internal locus of control that we want our kids to develop for themselves.

Finally (and yes, I realize that this makes four) we have David Wiesner’s 2001 The Three Pigs, the Caldecott Medal winner for that year. It’s a brilliant tour de force of illustration and revision, but again, I would share this with older kids who are already perfectly familiar with the traditional story. You can’t even understand this book without knowing the model it subverts. This is a book to be enjoyed by a more sophisticated audience than the one that will squeal with delight and huff and puff as ferocious wolves. This is one that demonstrates qualities of intellectual courage – flexibility, creativity, and inventiveness – rather than physical courage. Enjoy the Galdone or Marshall versions of the story with your small kids, and then once they’ve gone to bed, appreciate the Wiesner book with your wordly-wise middle schooler.

Perseverance: The Courage of a Spider

“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never.”

                         – Churchill

If you’ve ever seen the movie Braveheart, you know something of Scotland’s struggle for independence from King Edward Longshanks in the late 13th and early 14th Century. Here is one of the legends from that era. The next time you are tempted to intone, “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again,” tell this story instead. Perseverance is one of the qualities that physical courage can activate in us, and we can see it in the tiniest illustrations if we are observant:

Robert the Bruce, true king of Scotland, had tried six times to prevail in battle against the English. Six times he had failed, and now he was on the run, hunted like a wild animal from forest to farm to glen. Desperate, and with faltering hope, he took refuge in a cave while the rain beat steadily outside.

As he gazed with weary eyes through the entryway, he noticed a spider hanging from the ceiling. It was working a web, and seemed to be determined to fasten its next strand to a stone some distance away. It launched itself, swinging through the air, but missed, then patiently climbed back up to the start again, and made another attempt. Robert the Bruce watched, fascinated, while the spider struggled again and again to reach the stone. Six times the spider swung itself through the air, and six times it failed.

“I know what it is to lose six times,” the exiled king said to the spider. “My heart goes out to you.”

Once more, the spider launched itself with all the force it could muster, and this time gained its prize. “Yes!” the king cheered. “So shall I try a seventh time! I will not give up hope!”

And indeed, he was able to rally an army around himself, and encourage his people with new zeal. This time he prevailed, and drove the English from Scotland at the Battle of Bannockburn.


Pecos Bill

This American tall tale – or collection of tales – comes from the great tradition of brag stories from the Wild West. Decades of cowboys sitting around the campfire trying to outdo each other with exaggerated exploits gave rise to the legend of Pecos Bill. The stories were collected and put into published form in 1932 by an East Coast writer for The Century magazine. What’s fun about these stories – about all tall tales, really – is the zany bravado that takes physical courage to the extreme.

What’s that? Never heard of Pecos Bill? How he fell out of his family’s wagon while they were heading out west, and him just a little baby? Fell right into the Pecos River and nobody in the wagon was the wiser, but he got himself rescued by a bunch of coyotes and they raised him up. Once he did get grown up he ran across some human beings at last and they convinced him (it wasn’t easy) that he was a human being too, and so he decided to give cowboying a try. Beat up a rattlesnake and used it for a whip. Beat up a mountain lion and used it for a horse. Roped a whole herd of cattle and dug the Grand Canyon, and when he saw a tornado coming he roped it and rode it until it could barely whisper. Thats who Pecos Bill was.

The benefits of humor to relieve stress and anxiety are well known. “Laughter is the best medicine,” has been true since the first human slipped on a banana peel. When taking on a challenge, especially a physical courage challenge, a handful of Pecos Bill exaggeration can well lighten the tension.  Look for the wonderful version of the Pecos Bill stories written and illustrated by Steven Kellogg or the reissued 1938 Newbery Honor Book, Pecos Bill: The Greatest Cowboy of All Time by James Cloyd Bowman.  I promise you your bucakroos will be inspired.