If you’re lucky enough to be one of the significant adults in a child’s life, you’ve probably already discovered that your role is not exactly what you think it is.
A few months ago, I spent a day on the beach with my sister’s three kids – my Neephs.
After some time, my nephew had finally spotted a crab, and was busy explaining how I should pick it up.
“Why don’t you pick it up?” I enquire, hoping to be off the hook.
“’Cause I’m scared to,” says the little D.
“Well, then, so am I,” I say.
“But Aunty Nana, adults are supposed to be brave!”
It was a priceless opportunity, I thought, to give him a lesson in how adults aren’t always brave.
But we were there with his father, that day, and it wasn’t long before he was plucking some poor creature from the shallows and little D was giving me that look.
Great, I think, now I’ve just given him a lesson in how girls aren’t always brave!
Until that moment, it never occurred to me that our relationship was in the least bit gendered. We were just people, fellow introverts, sharing a common fear of humans and other things that bite.
Clearly, I wasn’t the best person to be teaching him lessons about bravery :)
But it did lead me to question how we teach kids things.
The lesson, in fact, probably had nothing at all to do with bravery, and more to do with respecting natural boundaries. A lesson in ‘live and let live’. In co-existing with other creatures.
It would have been a simple lesson for a boy whose first response to others’ touch is often “Go away!”
All I had to say was “How do you think the crab would feel?” and he’d have gotten the point of empathy and kindness.
But even then, once Daddy came along to show him how it’s done, I suppose the lesson would have been that empathy and kindness is for girls. Grrrr.
Where did it all go wrong?
It used to be that Fairy Tales were the source of all things wise, where communities passed down lessons to their kids on how to coexist.
So I consulted with the Brothers Grimm, and it turns out, a little bit of healthy fear is not so bad!
In “The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was”, it seems the whole village knows what it is to shudder, except for one boy. His inability to fear is a source of great shame, and eventually, he is cast out of home. In his mission to learn how to shudder, he encounters seven swinging corpses, and a haunted castle filled with creatures of the night, his cousin’s corpse, a beggar and some body parts.
Not knowing how to fear, he starts off being kind to all the ghoulies. The best is when he tries to warm his cousin’s corpse. Instead of being grateful, the cousin turns into a zombie and tries to strangle him – to which the youth retaliates in kind!
Instead of learning how to fear, the youth learns how to fight. In the end, his ruthlessness wins him a Princess and a place in the kingdom. It is finally up to his new wife to teach him how to shudder, which she does by throwing a bucket of cold water on him in the night. Cold shower, anyone?
The moral of the story, according to moi, is that communal life requires the skill of knowing just a little how to fear, and of respecting your place in the scheme of things. What’s scary is that progress, in the world outside the home, seems to depend on a foolish and callous bravado.
Is this the kind of brave we want our little ones to be? I can’t help wondering what will happen when little D no longer feels okay to admit that he’s afraid.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m looking forward to next week, when Brave hits our cinemas here in Oz. Tune in then for my take on a modern tale!
In the meantime, I’m curious to know your thoughts. Can bravery go too far? Should boys be braver than girls? How do we teach our kids empathy without making them weak?