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Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Prototype of Courage

Here's another reason why sharing stories that illustrate all six types of courage with your kids may be a very constructive project.  As children develop and acquire language, they are actively engaged in concept formation (which of course began in infancy).  What is "dog" or "chair" or "jumping" or "soft"?  These are all concepts that are learned through exposure to a wide variety of examples.  Each exposure helps the child refine the prototype, the essence or ideal, if you will, of "dog" "chair" "jumping" and "soft" based on what is common among all the examples of the concept.  

It works like this:  If a child has experience of many different sorts of dogs, her prototype of the concept "dog" may end up as something of medium stature, with an affectionate nature and an appetite for long walks - something like a Labrador retriever (not surprisingly one of the most popular of breeds.)   Generic or stylized signs for dogs generally show an animal of medium stature and average proportions, rather than a wasp-waisted whippet or a low-slung Basset hound.  If the child sees primarily Chihuahuas and Yorkshire terriers, her prototype might be something decidedly smaller, more nervous, and more inclined to sit on laps than your average Labrador.   (I am reminded of an anecdote I heard recently about a young boy whose mother was a lawyer with many women attorneys in her social set; the son disdained the idea of practicing law as a career since it was something "only girls do.")

If children form a prototype of the concept "courage" based on a narrow range of examples (e.g. only police officers or soldiers or firefighters) might they find it harder to recognize other types of courage in themselves or others? I can't find any academic studies supporting this, but it would certainly be an interesting investigation.

As I wrote earlier in a post on more evidence on the power of stories, researchers find more sophisticated "theory of mind" in children who listen to or read a lot of stories.  Theory of mind is the ability to imagine what might be going on in another person's head.   Some researchers contend that theory of mind may be critical to forming certain concepts.  For an abstract concept such as "courage" it may be necessary for a child to imagine the mental states of different people undergoing challenges.   In other words, theory of mind may allow a child to infer that a given situation is frightening or difficult for another person, and thus allow additional material for forming the prototype of "courage."

A recent article in Psychology Today also proposes that imagining other people's choices clarifies our own.  When faced with a choice we have never had to make before, we summon our mental prototype of a person who would made that choice.  If that prototype is something we aspire to (i.e. courageous action), we may make the choice in a way that matches the prototype.  Much as many Evangelical Christians use the motto, "What would Jesus do?"to guide their decisions, we prompt ourselves to conform to a standard that we wish to match.  If we have allowed ourselves and our children to form a prototype that encompasses all six types of courage, can we hope that we will be better able to rise to the challenge when it meets us on the path, in whatever form it takes?  If courage resides in the hearts of such diverse heroes as Horatio, Br'er Rabbit, and Lady Godiva, the prototype of courage our children take with them through their lives may be as nuanced as our complex world requires.

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