When my youngest son Finn was in second grade, he was struggling to learn to read. Not only that, but he was ashamed of his struggles. His classmates seemed to be doing just fine. Finn tried to keep a brave face. He tried to hide from everyone what was going on. But underneath it all he was really worried and agitated.
One night he cried to both David and me about it. David did two things: he reached out to Finn’s wonderful teacher, and then he told Finn a bedtime story about bravery (made up on the spot, as David’s stories are). The story was called “Jack Tar’s Brave Day.” (More on that in a moment.)
The next day at school, Finn’s teacher started the main lesson by talking about her own struggles with stuttering. She explained how she had spent much of her life embarrassed about it. She asked if other children had similar experiences. One hand raised immediately: Finn’s. He admitted openly to his class that he was struggling with reading and felt embarrassed.
Not only did his classmates enthusiastically love and support him, they too raised their hands and shared their struggles and stories. The true stories of bravery from Finn and his teacher inspired them!
It was a transformative moment for the entire class, and an experience that I believe helped shape our son into the brave, open-hearted young man that he is.
Jack Tar’s Brave Day: Facing Your Fears
In this story, Jack Tar is a striking figure in sea lore known for his bravery on the high seas. He learned courage in his childhood. In fact, his bravest day occurred on land when he was a boy, on his second day of school when he admitted: he didn’t know how to read.
This story highlights that courage is born not by being “fearless” but by being afraid. Feeling the fear and shame and desire to run away comes first. Then we choose to meet it or not. Those who are considered brave have chosen to meet it. This story imagines a potential start to the brave tall tale of Jack Tar with a very real situation where a child must admit he needs help.
Brave Salad: Taking Action
After having a recurring bad dream, Sylvia expresses her fear of going to bed at night. Momma has several ideas on how to soothe and prepare her for bed, but it is her friend Sofia who comes up with the most effective way to deal with any fear: making brave salad! And if you’re feeling extra inspired by this sweet story, even have a special Seed Sprouting Tutorial to follow along with.
Children generally don’t respond to explanations or reason — at least, they are seldom transformed by this approach. What does work is action and ritual: to DO something in the face of the fear, to ritualize meeting with the fear. In “Brave Salad,” Sylvia is invited to ritualize becoming brave by eating it: something most kids tend to enjoy!
Grandma’s Story: Take a Stand
Grandma's story is about how she bucked tradition and chose a surprising theme for a fourth of July float. No one stepped forward to help her, except her father who believed in standing up for what you believe in. This story is about the courage it takes to step forward and speak up.
This is one of our more explicit stories around social action where the main character faces adversity in trying to do the right thing. As younger listeners have their plate full with daily fears and insecurities, this story will provide inspiration rather than modeling. It can be used as an uplifting story for their future selves where they take a stand for something they know to be true and right.
Piper the Frog: Leaning in to your strengths
Piper, the young bullfroglet, is afraid to go on land. When she was very little, she had a small scare and the fear has stayed with her. When a big bullfrog comes to her for help, she learns that he is afraid of diving — and she is very good at diving! She helps him — and in doing so, decides to be just as brave as he is.
This story models something parents and mentors can always do: use their own biographies to demonstrate little solutions to common problems. This gives their young listeners two huge gifts: recognition that their challenges are not unique, and real life ways to meet their challenges. Plus it has the added benefit of deepening relationships through empathy and common stories.
Ben Thompson is determined to show his junkyard friends that he is strong and brave and unafraid. He decides to prove himself by venturing into the forest in the dark of night, despite the bobcat that lives there. And when he does in fact encounter “Spots” — the polite but very hungry bobcat — Ben realizes the true meaning of courage.
This story takes the pervasive and often hollow version of courage and flips it on its head. In it, Ben tries on the “macho” version of courage and potentially puts himself in danger. Lucky for him, the bobcat gives Ben the opportunity to discover the truth of courage: that it is deeply connected to vulnerability and honesty.