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Expert Q and A

Each month, you'll be able to get answers directly from experts covering a wide range of parenting topics. You'll also have a chance to share your own expert tips with other parents. Join the conversation!

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Serving Up Spoonfuls of Gratitude

by Nina Lesowitz and Mary Beth Sammons

Authors Nina Lesowitz and Mary Beth Sammons are leading a discussion on how to make gratitude a part of your family's life. Read and Comment »

Home » Archives »

Courage Is a Heart Word (and a Family Affair)

by Brené Brown


Brené Brown

Brené Brown, professor and author, has spent the past 10 years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity and shame. Read more »

Sorry, Brené Brown is no longer taking questions.

Courage is a huge theme in my life. It seems that either I’m praying for some, feeling grateful for having found a little bit, appreciating it in other people, or studying it. I don’t think that makes me unique. Everyone wants to be brave.

After spending the past ten years interviewing people about the truths of their lives—their strengths and struggles—I realized that courage is not something we have or don’t have, it’s something we practice. And, thankfully, something we can teach and model for our children.

The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and, today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic. Heroics are important and we certainly need heroes, but I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics are often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today’s world, that’s pretty extraordinary.

When we pay attention, we see courage every day. I see it in my classroom when a student raises her hand and says, “I’m completely lost. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Do you know how incredibly brave it is to say “I don’t know” when you’re pretty sure everyone around you gets it? (Of course, in my twelve-plus years of teaching, I know there are usually at least ten more students who feel the exact same way.)

I saw courage in my daughter, Ellen, when she called me from a slumber party at 10:30 p.m. and said, “Mom, can you come get me?” When I picked her up, she got in the car and said, “I’m sorry. I just wasn’t brave enough. I got homesick. It was so hard. Everyone was asleep, and I had to walk to Libby’s mom’s bedroom and wake her up.” I pulled into our driveway, got out of the car, and walked around to the backseat where Ellen was sitting. I scooted her over and sat next to her. I said, “Ellen, I think asking for what you need is one of the bravest things that you’ll ever do. I suffered through a couple of really miserable sleepovers and slumber parties because I was too afraid to ask to go home. I’m proud of you.”

I also see courage in myself when I’m willing to risk being vulnerable and open with my children. If I experience a disappointment or make a mistake or if I’m nervous about a new challenge, I often share those stories with my kids. I try to make sure the stories are age-appropriate and relatable. I want them to understand that we’re all imperfect and vulnerable, and they’re not alone in those struggles.

Just last week my son Charlie told me that he wasn’t sure that he could play at his piano recital. He said, “Remember when you told me and Dad that you were really scared to talk on TV and that you knew you were going to make a mistake? That’s how I feel. It’s too scary.” I was able to tell him that I actually made lots of mistakes, but that it was a good experience. It was a great launching point for an honest conversation about the importance of owning our feelings and the power of simply showing up.

I believe that owning our stories and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do. When we share our stories of vulnerability and imperfection with our children we teach them that it is possible to be brave and afraid at the same time - in the same moment. When we honor their storytelling, we honor their courage.

Here are a few things we do to cultivate storytelling and courage around our house:

  1. When one of our kids is struggling, Steve and I try to tell them a story about one of our similar struggles when we were their age. Now both of my kids share their stories and automatically ask for a story.
  2. We use lots of open-ended questions when our kids come home. The most effective ones for us include: Who did you sit with at lunch? What was the best thing that happened today? Was there a worst? If so, what was it?
  3. We try to stay very mindful about interrupting (especially with the siblings). It’s hard to start a vulnerable story and get interrupted by, “Sissy ate all of the strawberries!”

  4. What do you think? How do you cultivate story with your family?

    Sorry, Brené Brown is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


Comments

Gabby writes...

Lovely article. I particularly like the suggestion to use stories as a way to instill courage.

I remember my dad's stories about how he overcame different struggles as a kid. It was really helpful to know that, yes, I can get through obstacles too.

Brene? writes...

At 45, I still love hearing my dad's stories about his struggles. Even if it's a story I've heard 100 times. I don't think that ever goes away. Thanks for the post!

The Other Laura writes...

We each tell our daily highs and lows at dinner. On Saturdays, we listen to music and spend some extra time at the table. This has encouraged many family stories.

Brene? writes...

Sharing music is one of our favorite ways to share story!

Cynthia writes...

I have really struggled with this. My life was soooo screwed up. I didn't want to ever even think about it. My Dad was an alcholic and my life was a series of stepmothers, girlfriends etc. But, I did learn that I had to share all of my stories good and bad. So when my daughter asked me which grade was the hardest. I answered 5th, when my parents divorced and I had a 56 in history. "Is that failing?" Oh Yeah! I have learned with some stories. I ask the kids to not tell everyone. They are just too personal and I don't want the whole 4th grade to know!

Brene? writes...

I remember when my mother started sharing stories about her life with me. It was hard and I vacillated between not wanting to know and desperately wanting to know. My grandmother (whom I adored and named my daughter after) was an alcoholic. She quit drinking shortly after I was born. Today, I'm so grateful that my mom had the courage to tell us the truth about her life and experiences. I try to do the same thing with my kids. I don't want them to carry around the silence, which I think often turns to shame and self-doubt.

For me, the challenge is knowing what to share and when. I also started talking to Ellen about addiction and our family history in 4th grade. I try to only share the pieces that would make sense to her and to make sure she knows that there are no secrets, but there is appropriate sharing.

Thank you for your post and thanks for the reminder that it's not always the easy stories that bring courage to our families.


Kathleen writes...

I have a 14 year old daughter who is in high school. She wanted to join the track team. She did and three days into track she quit she said it was to hard. What can I do to encourage her to not quit?

Brene? writes...

We've been through similar struggles. It's not easy. There are a couple of things that have worked for us. We make sure they understand that the first 3-4 weeks of a new sport are going to be pretty miserable. I remember the first month of swim team when I was in middle school. It felt like I was swimming through sand. I think normalizing that before it even starts helps with the self-doubt and the fear that they're not "good enough" or tough enough. It takes a few weeks for kids to get into shape and find their groove.

The other piece that can be helpful is encouraging the social aspect of a new sport. Either making sure that she can attend the practices with a friend or helping her make a new friend on the team. When Ellen started swimming we tried to get her to practice early so she could have a few minutes to talk to the other swimmers and make friends with some girls her age. We've even invited new teammates over for dinner or to watch a movie.

So much of the middle school and high school sports experience is about belonging. Even if practice is terrible in the beginning, having a friend or two to share the journey with can make all of the difference.

sara writes...

I have spent years caregiving for friends, aunts, uncles, grandparents and my own children. Each time they have said Thank You, I have had the same response; "It is just not my turn". As I watch my own mother who before this was the epitome of strength and courage, lose her mojo from the world of cancer, I began to understand even more so the writings of Brene.

I am courageous today as I am at last vulnerable and have begun to understand far better the world of my parents when they were in their fifties and balancing the sandwich. They were not allowed this gift of being open and vulnerable. And it. like being imperfect is a gift!

I am certain my own personal journey has led me to be a better, though not well prepared daughter as I do y best daily to remember what their live looked like when they were 54. History does repeat itself and courage has been a constant in my family. Being open and honest about vulnerability is very new to us all. For this I am grateful.

Brene? writes...

"Being open and honest about vulnerability is very new to us all. For this I am grateful." Me too!
I think you're absolutely right about courage and vulnerability being passed down. One of the most questions I'm asked the most is, "How do I teach my children that it's okay to be vulnerable?" No one ever likes the answer, but you nailed it: Show them what it looks like. I don't think we can give our children what we don't have. I often wish I could, but I don't think it works.

Thanks for your post!

jane writes...

my daughters are both deeply empathic but one of them has more resilience... for the eldest just being at school requires immense courage - the things that no-one else notices just floor her and so just turning up at school requires immense courage... i think it is important to remind her that when she finds things really tough (like when she has to sit the maths test with the scary teacher) that she already has immense courage - it helps to remind her of times when she has shown extra courage in the past - but i realise that it drains her ... i think telling her i admire her strength and courage and remind her of times she drew on those qualities helps her too
and it helps to have your words Brene to make sense of it all...

Brene? writes...

Jane - I agree with you 100%! Naming courage and putting language around the choices our kids make is so powerful. I think there are many of us with highly sensitive radars (and I would guess many of us are first borns). One strategy that has really helped me (as one of those 1st borns) is to develop a gratitude practice. I know it doesn't seem related, but research shows us that it is very helpful. When we are extra sensitive to the struggles in the world, it's important to also be mindful of the good. It's changed my life! Thank you for the post - it was an important reminder for me!

Gerrianne writes...

What a beautiful article. As the mother of three grown children I am seeing how my children's vulnerability has shaped who they are as adults. My older two children had friends, were able to communicate their insecurities with us and we always felt able to support them through this. We had our bumps in the road but we did a pretty good job.

Our youngest daughter was bullied incessantly in school and struggled with low self esteem. I tried in vein to help her through this time by being with her at the end of the day as she cried about the abuse, and she asked me to stay out of it. I could not, I was like a mother bear protecting my young.

I tried to change the school,the parents and the kids. It was a challenging time. what I noticed through this (in hindsight) is that she started to not want to share with me, because my "help" made matters worse for her at school. Through all of her pain, she put up huge walls of protection and every day would walk into school, head held high, trying not to show the other girls that their insults would not hurt her.

Fast forward to her high school years and she had developed a way of being with other kids that was a "know it all". She continued to have troubles with friends and in her senior year became a crystal meth addict. The pain of all of those years was just too much.
The effect of this addiction took its toll on the family and we ended up doing an intervention on her and kicked her out on the streets with no visible means of support. Talk about courage - to say, I cannot save my daughter, she has to save herself. As a family we supported each other through this time (9 months) waiting for her to decide to get help. she stood strong and finally decided she needed help. I found a way through this pain by being vulnerable, asking for support, tuning into my inner wisdom and using a ton of different tools that I have learned over the years and I also developed.

That was 3 years ago. She went into treatment and is now living at home.
When I saw your TED talk on shame and vulnerability, it spoke to me so loudly. She tries so hard to numb her vulnerability with perfection, certainty and pretending.

She is living at home and hates being here but is struggling to make enough money to move out on her own. I want nothing more than her to find that independence as that I believe with add to her strength.

As I navigate through this journey with her, I am continually learning ways to get out of her way so she can find her way. I work with families helping them to navigate through stress, guilt and chaos with tools and strategies that I use in my life and that I have learned over the years.

Much love and thanks for the great work you do.
Gerrianne

Brene? writes...

Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. I'm not sure there's anything more painful than watching someone you love struggle with addiction. I think we all numb vulnerability to some degree, otherwise we wouldn't be the most obese, in debt, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in history. We're also the busiest. We work more and take less vacation than ever before.

I think addiction happens when that numbing becomes chronic and compulsive.

If I've learned anything in the past ten years of research it's this strange irony: As we grow up, we all shut down parts of ourselves that are too painful to leave open (because of things like bullying, shame, and difficult family situations). Then, when we grow up, we have reopen all of those places to truly be the people and parents we want to be.

To be able to do all of that closing and reopening with the support of people we love is what it's all about. Thank you again, Gerriane.

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