Brave New Kids

By David Allyn ’91 / January / February 2004
June 8th, 2007
I must have been nine years old. I’d never played softball before. For various reasons, I’d never once picked up a bat or tried on a glove. But on that day our P.E. class trekked to the makeshift school softball field. It was hot, and I felt uncomfortable in my helmet. When I got up to bat, the ball came at me, and I closed my eyes. I made a sorry attempt at a swing. When I opened my eyes again, all the kids in the outfield were laughing. I could feel the hot flush of embarrassment in my cheeks.

If you’re like most parents, you want your children to be happy, confident, easygoing. You want them to be generous, polite, and hardworking. And while you may never have realized it, you probably want them to be un-embarrassable. You want Zoe to get back on her bike after she falls off. You want Nicky to try out for the basketball team even after getting teased by his friends for not being a good player. You want Hannah to wear her favorite dress even though the boys told her she looks ugly in it. You want your kids to be resilient and socially courageous. As they get older, you want them to be able to resist the temptation to go along with the crowd. You want them to be brave enough to say no when their friends encourage them to smoke, drink, or use drugs.

Un-embarrassability is not an easy quality to pass on to children. In fact, the more we try to instill in them a sense of courage, the more they tend to resist. When we push them to go beyond their comfort zone, they become defiantly shy, ever more frustrated and withdrawn. “I don’t want to,” the boy says bitterly to his father, who is urging him to join the other kids in play. But it’s hard as a parent to be relaxed when a child gets easily embarrassed or won’t try something new, especially if the child’s behavior is reminiscent of your own. When my daughter was two she wouldn’t go anywhere near a playground swing. She loved to run around, to climb on the jungle gym, to go down the slide. But she dreaded getting in a swing. Her own trepidation made me tense; I didn’t want her to grow up with the same sense of social awkwardness I’d felt as a kid. And even though she was only two, I foresaw years of taunting and teasing: “Jordan doesn’t know how to swing! Jordan doesn’t know how to swing!”

Psychologists, educators, and child-development specialists are just beginning to understand the critical role shame spirals play in personal and social development. Even today, most young people have no one to talk to about feelings of embarrassment, shame, or humiliation, so kids keep their feelings to themselves. They find ways to avoid difficult situations at the cost of their own sense of competence.

But the future is promising. Teachers are becoming more attuned to the emotional lives of their students. School counselors are beginning to recognize that schools are breeding grounds of shame and embarrassment. Principals and curriculum specialists are finding ways to promote openness and honesty in the classroom. Todd Parr has written a wonderful picture book entitled It’s Okay to Be Different.

Parents have a crucial part to play in the movement against shame. They can model courage in their own lives and nurture it in the lives of their children. A child with the ability to triumph over self-consciousness grows up confident in the knowledge that anything is possible. For kids, especially, the way to turn a spiral of shame into a spiral of accomplishment is to practice the skills of social courage.

As a parent, the most important rule to keep in mind when raising children is this: If you want your kids to be courageous, you’d better be courageous, too! Kids can smell hypocrisy a mile away. They know when their parents are saying one thing but doing another. Consider the words of child-development expert Robert Coles:

The most pervasive moral teaching we adults do is by example: the witness of our lives, our ways of being with others and speaking to them and getting on with them—all of that is taken in slowly, cumulatively, by our sons and daughters, our students. To be sure, other sources can count a great a deal: formal lectures or explicit talks, reading and more reading and discussion of what has been read, reprimands and reminders with punishment of various kinds, churchgoing or synagogue attendance, the experiences of hearing sermons and being told biblical messages, and the moral lessons and the wisdom of our secular novelists, poets, and playwrights—all of that can count a great deal. But in the long run of a child’s life, the unselfconscious moments that are what we think of simply as the unfolding events of the day and the week turn out to be the really powerful and persuasive times morally.

If you want your daughter to have the courage to make new friends, start making new friends yourself. If you want your son to have the courage to admit when he has done something wrong, start admitting when you have. I tell parents, if you want your kids to be courageous, you’d better start being the most courageous person you know.

Kids need very few explicit lessons in life. They are much smarter than we give them credit for. All kids want to be courageous; it’s a natural, universal aspiration. Demonstrate your own commitment to be brave, and your kids will readily follow suit.

The following suggestions are intended to help you model the skills of social courage. Use them to break through your own limitations. The sooner you demonstrate bravery, the sooner your kids will too.


When you make a mistake, say so.

Social courage begins with the ability to tell the truth. You can teach your children to be courageous only by modeling honesty yourself. Own up to your blunders. You don’t have to express a lot of guilt or shame, or get overly dramatic. Just acknowledge mistakes as you make them: “Oops, I forget to bring the shopping list.” “Uh-oh, I forgot to buy a birthday card for Mommy.” The more you let your kids know that you are fallible and brave enough to admit it, the more they will be able to admit their own failures with equal grace and dignity.


Share your rejection and disappointments, without any drama.

Your kids want to know when you’ve had a bad day, so tell them. But stick to the facts. Leave out your opinions. “Why did you have a bad day, Daddy?” “Because I asked my boss for a raise and he said no.” “Why, Daddy?” “I don’t know, sweetheart. Sometimes, when you ask for things, people say yes, and sometimes they say no.” The less wallowing in self-pity the better. Show your kids that you have perspective on life, but avoid getting philosophical. Kids don’t want to hear life lessons; they just want to see how you handle situations that are difficult.


When you’re proud of finding a solution to a problem, share that, too.

If you impress yourself by finding a solution to a problem, share your accomplishment with your kids: “I needed to call my boss when I was on the bus today because we were stuck in traffic and I knew we were going to be late. But then I realized I’d forgotten to bring my cell phone with me. I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ But then I asked a man on the bus to let me borrow his phone and he did. You’ve got a smart dad, huh?” As you demonstrate that it is okay to take risks in life, your kids will take more risks too. And as you share your sense of pride, they will discover their own sense of pride as well.


Whenever you hear music, dance.

Kids love to express themselves by running, singing, dancing, kissing, hugging, crying, screaming, and so on. But, for the most part, adults repress themselves in order to seem “mature.” Kids learn from watching adults. So if your kids see you repressing yourself, they will repress themselves too.

If you’re in the supermarket and you hear music playing over the loudspeakers, dance a little as you go down the aisles. Do some disco. Twirl a couple of times. If other people look at you strangely, take that as a sign that you’re headed in the right direction. When you feel like singing, sing. When you feel like jumping on a pile of leaves, jump. The freer you are, the freer your kids will be.


Don’t pretend to have all the answers.
Kids want to know why things are the way they are, especially when things go wrong. As parents, we’re often tempted to give answers that sound good: “I’m sure Johnny didn’t mean what he said” or “Your teacher just wants you to learn.” Answers like these undermine kids’ ability to solve problems on their own.

If you don’t know what else to say, stick to the word sometimes: “Sometimes people are mean. What do you think you should do about it?” “Sometimes teachers get upset. What do you think we should do now?”

The benefits of the word sometimes are well illustrated in a story told by Beverly Daniel Tatum, an African American professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke College, recounting an experience with her son, David. One day when Tatum was picking up David at school, he saw a white mother putting boots on her dark-skinned, biracial daughter. “Why don’t they match, Mommy?” he asked loudly. “You and I match. They don’t match. Mommies and kids are supposed to match.” Tatum was embarrassed, but she managed to remain calm. “David,” she said simply, “sometimes parents and kids match, and sometimes they don’t.”


Have the courage to ask your kids if they feel loved.

Children will have the courage to jump high in life only if they feel confident that they have a strong trampoline beneath them to catch them when they fall. Parental love provides that trampoline. Obviously, you love your kids. But do they feel like you do? Or do they feel like you criticize them too much? Or that you’re too busy to care?

Parents who show indifference, disapproval, or rejection tend to raise children who crave approval from others but never feel satisfied in life. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t criticize your kids or that you should treat them like fragile china cups. But it does mean that all criticism should be given in a context of love and support. Find out from your kids if they feel loved and supported before you give negative feedback.

And what if they say they don’t? The inclination is to get defensive and protest: “But I do love you! I love you so much!” That won’t work. In fact, it’s irritating because it’s just a way of dealing with your own embarrassment at being told you’re a bad parent. Instead, just listen to what they have to say. Really listen. Don’t change your behavior. Just keep listening. The more you listen, the more loved they will feel.


Be honest about your own embarrassment.

When you’re trying to be the best parent on the planet, it’s easy to get embarrassed by your own inadequacies. Joey wants the fifty-dollar toy that Carl has, but you can’t afford to get it for him. Instead of getting defensive (“You have dozens of toys you never play with”) or trying to change the subject (“Hey, let’s get an ice cream”), be open about what you’re feeling: “I wish I could get you that toy, but we can’t afford it. I’m a little embarrassed about it. Any suggestions?”

Divorce is an issue that often embarrasses parents. Your daughter tells her teacher that she likes her father’s girlfriend better than you. When you hear that, you’re mortified. But instead of trying to stop her from expressing why she likes Daddy’s girlfriend, get interested in her views. Listen keenly without getting defensive. Your kids have a lot to say about life; the more you listen to them, the more you will learn about yourself in the process.

If you’re embarrassed by the way your son or daughter dresses, talks, or behaves, say so. But remember to deconstruct your own assumptions before you lash out. Most parents get embarrassed but conceal their embarrassment with self-righteous anger. It’s better to be open about your own embarrassment, so that you can at least have an honest conversation about the problem.


With boys, demonstrate the courage it takes to show weakness.

Boys grow up thinking it is dangerous to be weak, so they will do everything to hide their weakness (their vulnerabilities, their insecurities, their fears). In the long run, this will only make them unhappy—particularly in relationships with women. Parents, especially fathers, have an opportunity to show young boys that it is okay to be vulnerable. By being open about your own insecurities and fears, you can show your son that it is safe to be himself.


With girls, demonstrate the courage it takes to stand up for what you believe in.

Girl culture emphasizes friendship over viewpoint. Girls learn at an early age that it is more important to be liked than it is to be strong. In fact, girls often learn that being strong is a fast way to having few friends.

You can do wonders for your daughter by showing her that you are willing to stand up for what you believe in, even at the cost of social opinion. Your daughter may be embarrassed by your determination in the short run, but in the long run she will have a role model for taking a stand and following up on commitments.


Teach your kids how to accept compliments.

This is a piece of advice I found in Philip Zimbardo’s book Shyness: What It Is, What to Do About It, and I think it is an invaluable pearl of wisdom. Most kids find it hard to accept a compliment. They’re afraid of seeming rude. The problem is, their awkwardness usually comes across as rudeness. They know that, but it only makes the problem worse. So they become shier and less outgoing.

You can encourage your kids by gently instructing them in the art of accepting compliments. The best way to accept a compliment, of course, is to smile and say “Thank you.” But sometimes it helps to add an extra touch by passing the compliment on to someone else: “Thank you. I just do what my mother tells me.” Or “Thank you. I’ve been blessed with great teachers.”

Kids who know how to accept compliments end up feeling more secure in themselves and more willing to strive for high goals. They never have to fear that if they succeed in their goals, they won’t know what to say. Accepting a compliment graciously gives boys the experience of being suave and girls the sense of being elegant.

Sociologist David Allyn is currently a visiting scholar at Columbia’s Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. This article is excerpted from his book I Can’t Believe I Just Did That: How (Seemingly) Small Embarrassments Can Wreak Havoc in Your Life—and What You Can Do to Put a Stop to Them, to be published in January. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Copyright 2004 Tarcher/Penguin.
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January / February 2004