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Friday, December 30, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

At any moment, you have a choice, that either leads you closer to your spirit or further away from it.

~ Thich Nhat Hanh


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

Always do right. That will gratify some people and astonish the rest.
-- Mark Twain.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

"Christmas is the time for looking ahead courageously through the gates of the swiftly approaching new year...of resolving that the coming months will reflect a kinder, more forgiving and less heedless person than mirrored in the past."

~ Ellen V. Morgan
Season's Blessings to you, dear reader, and your family!  May you enjoy a relaxing, love-filled holiday season together!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Stories with Eleanor, Part 2

Last week I had coffee with my friend, Eleanor Stanton, the associate pastor at the Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs.   We talked about her work with teens in the high school youth group, her pastoral counseling, her experience of cancer, and most of all, her use of stories.  You can find the first part of our conversation here.

Jennifer: I’ve noticed that when you preach, you like to walk around and hold your printed page at your side. Did you have storytelling experience before you became a minister?  What are the mechanics of how you do what you do when you are preaching?  How did you come to that? How did you make that choice?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Talking Stories with Eleanor, Part 1

Last week I had coffee with my friend, Eleanor Stanton, the associate pastor at the Presbyterian- New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs.  She talked about stories, working with teens, about being a minister, about having cancer, and about being a minister with cancer.  Throughout our conversation were implicit and explicit observations about courage.   This is the first of two installments of that interview.

Jennifer: So, I have some questions for you about courage and about story. Let’s start with this. If somebody came to church on Sunday, somebody new in town, and there you are, you’re wearing your collar, your robe, and you have no hair. So they may quickly make certain assumptions about both your story, and your courage –

Eleanor:  I thought you were going to say, my orientation!

Jennifer:   Ha! No!  So whether their assumptions are correct or not, odds are that they are going to be making them. What’s your response to just the fact that that happens? That whereas somebody else may not present a whole lot of clues, for example –

Monday, December 19, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

Anything's possible if you've got enough nerve. ~ J. K. Rowling

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Up and Over the Black Belt Wall!

Lisa's son performing his personal Black Belt form
I recently wrote about Jennifer's daughter and my two children's Tae Kwon Do Black Belt journey in a post entitled The Black Belt Wall.  All three children faced their own individual courage challenges over the four years of study required to attain their Black Belts.  Over the course of the final two days of testing, a couple of weeks ago, each Black Belt candidate was required to perform approximately ten different belt forms (a set series of jumps, kicks, chops, and other martial arts moves), a lengthy work-out, 100+ sit-ups, 100+ push-ups, 500-1,000 jump ropes, a 15-minute run, several sparring matches, their own personal form performed for all attendees, and finally to read a personal essay about their individual journey to becoming a Black Belt.  I'm happy to report that each of them successfully completed their test and were subsequently awarded crisp new Black Belts embroidered with their names!  It was truly inspiring to be witness to such a motivated, talented group of young people, ages 9-16, each achieving a long-cherished and hard-won goal. 

As parents, we provided the gas, transportation, monthly school fees, and the "You can do it!" motivation (when needed).  It was our kids, however, working under their martial arts instructors' mentorship, who had to show up for each class, dig deep in moments of fear or boredom, and have the emotional, intellectual, social, and physical courage to stick with a sport that is learned one move at a time.  Like in the classic movie Karate Kid (1984) when young Daniel is asked to help Karate Master Mr. Miyagi, one paint brush stroke at a time (instead of getting his much-desired and expected martial arts instruction), our kids not only had to develop trust in their instructors and themselves, they had to develop the kind of patience with the process that is in short supply in our instant gratification culture.  The courage development associated with this kind of time-honored teacher-student relationship and the courage challenges involved:  priceless!  Jennifer wrote a great post about this recently, too, in Wait for it...Wait for it!  

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one. ~Elbert Hubbard

Thursday, December 15, 2011

This Is Your Brain on Stories

I’ve offered a lot of traditional stories on Lion’s Whiskers over the last several months. How many of you are telling them to your kids? Maybe not a lot of you, and that’s okay! But I hope you have gathered something from these stories. What I hope you have picked up on is this: around the world, in every culture, people have been telling stories not simply for entertainment, but for creating metaphors for understanding their world. I also hope I can persuade you that some form of storytelling – whether with traditional narratives or your own “When I was a kid” yarns – can be a powerful parenting tool, and may help your kids to develop the six types of courage.

I've shared a lot of my own anecdotal observations about the power of storytelling, and posted lots of inspiring quotations about the role of stories in our lives. What’s fascinating and exciting is that cutting-edge brain science is beginning to back up the wisdom of the ages. Researchers from many disciplines are using fMRI brain scanning to investigate what actually happens in our brains when we listen to stories. The fields of advertising and journalism have always known how to harness the power of stories; but that power is now part of medical education and law schools, in tax compliance and political discourse, as part of proposed Alzheimer’s treatments, and part of the on-going discussion concerning whether an understanding of narrative can help explain wartime behaviors. Even the defense department is studying whether narrative approaches can help create military leaders with more moral courage.

I want to very briefly (as a layperson, children’s author, and researcher on the importance of story-telling in our culture) summarize some of the findings.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

Children are educated by what the grown-up is and not by his talk.
~ Carl Jung

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Is There Only One Right Answer?

Here on the Lion's Whiskers blog we have had much to say, recently, on the topic of moral courage and morality - how it is learned, how we can help our children develop it and how we can support it in them and ourselves. In its simplest terms, we can say that being guided by a moral conscience means being able to tell the difference between right and wrong, good or bad. And although there are certainly cultural differences that shade those words, "right" , "wrong", "good" and "bad" in slightly different tones, I suspect most people would agree that if they saw a child bite another child and grab the toy away, they would discourage that behavior; and if they saw a child helping another one to stand up after a fall, I suspect they would mostly all want to encourage that. A deeper appreciation will also involve understanding why something is right or wrong, good or bad, understanding what values may be involved and why we might want to promote them. Our justice system recognizes a difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, and a robust conscience will always, I hope, seek to follow the spirit behind the letter rather than rigidly adhering to the letter and allowing the spirit be distorted. Children can be adroit litigators, triumphantly reminding us of our exact words when we suspect they knew full well what we meant to imply when we said them. This is definitely good training for a parent or teacher in being really really really crystal clear, but it also leaves behind the uneasy feeling that some moral quicksand may be nearby, that queasy sensation that my child just "got away with" something right in front of my eyes, and we both know it. We want our children to consider our explicit words and their implicit meaning, taking account of what our family's lived ethics are.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

"Where you tend a rose, a thistle cannot grow."

Frances Hodgson Burnett 

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Candles are magical. The Lovely K. and I light candles at dinner most nights, and try to bring someone into our circle of flickering light as we do so – grandma and grandpa, friends far away, soldiers fighting in wars, someone who is sick or facing a difficult challenge. Making the candle’s flame part of a ritual enhances our reverence and our awareness and our gratitude for our meal. It always seemed to me that having this special fire available on a nightly basis made sense, that it would be a way to make fire a familiar member of our family instead of an exotic and dangerous stranger.

I taught K. how to light matches and how to blow out candles without spraying wax on the table.

Her school has a number of traditions that involve the children lighting and carrying candles. These events are beautiful and spiritual, and tell the kids, “We trust you with this special gift.” The children are always careful and make themselves worthy of our trust. When I was a child, we had special candle holders from Germany for the Christmas tree. Each year on Christmas Eve we would turn off the lamps, light these candles and then sit, almost breathless, watching them fill the living room with candle light. This would last ten minutes or so until my parents reached the limit of their nerves and we blew them out. Beauty with danger added magic to the expectation of the night.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A few quotations on the power of stories

Whether you tell traditional stories, share your childhood escapades with your kids, narrate the day's events or make up stories on the spot - grab the power of storytelling for your parenting toolkit!

Here's a little bit of food for thought:

"Great stories teach you something. That's one reason I haven't slipped into some kind of retirement: I always feel like I'm learning something new." ~ Clint Eastwood

"The process of putting your life into order with a beginning, middle, and end forces you to see cause and effect." Cahtherine Burns, artistic director, The Moth

"Over the years I have become convinced that we learn best - and change - from hearing stories that strike a chord within us... Those in leadership positions who do not grasp or use the power of stories risk failure for their companies and for themselves." ~ John Kotter, Harvard Business School

“The Conceptual Age can remind us what has always been true but has rarely been acted upon – that we must listen to each other’s stories and that we are each the authors of our own lives… we are our stories.“ Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind

Monday, November 21, 2011

About Stories

"The protagonist of folk tale is always, and intensely, a young person moving through ordeals into adult life. When adult state and a suitable partner is achieved the tale is over. Adults as such are of no interest - they exist only as helpers, enemies, or rivals of the protagonist. And this is why there are no wicked stepchildren in the tales. Stepmothers' feelings and problems are of no account - they are grown-ups and can work it out for themselves."

~ Jill Paton Walsh

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Black Belt Wall

Lisa's son competing in board breaking in November, 2011 as a "Recommended Black Belt"
Jennifer and my children are testing for their Black Belts in Tae Kwon Do (TKD) this weekend.  It’s kind of a big deal.  This test, six and a half hours in total, is the culmination of four years of study.  They have each hit their own personal Black Belt walls and wanted to quit.  As I wrote about in Quitters, Campers, and Quitters:  Which One Are You?, what matters is that they didn’t quit and, as their parents, we didn’t quit on them. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Courage Question of the Day

Here at Lion's Whiskers we are hoping to collect kids' definitions for some of the values most commonly associated with moral courage

We would appreciate your help! 

Could you ask your children to define, in their own words, one or more of the following?  Please send us their age, first name (if you are comfortable), country, and what they understand these words to mean.   

  • Loyalty
  • Trust
  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Accountability
  • Responsibility
  • Fairness
  • Impartiality
  • Justice
You may be impressed, surprised, or even shocked by what your child has already learned, or not, about what these powerful words mean to them in their life.  We hope the discussion prompts new insights and hope you will share with us your learning!  Thanks for your help!  Send your responses to: lisa@drlisaparentcoaching.com

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Surviving the Lion AND the Fox!

Travellers' Decorated CaravanI found a very interesting story the other day that highlights moral courage in an unusual way. Animal fables typically offer the lion and the fox as examples of physical courage and intellectual courage, brawn vs. brains. Here we have a story from the very old Gypsy tradition, a story which demonstrates a different way an outcast group manages to survive. I found The Lion, the Fox, and the Bird in The Fish Bride and Other Gypsy Tales, retold by Jean Russel Larson. This is book well worth reading if you can find it. I'll just summarize this story briefly.

In this story, a new bird arrives in a part of the forest that is home to a lion and a fox. Not being a fast flyer, the bird is warned by everyone to leave. "I'll have to get the lion and the fox to leave," the bird replies. "It's really too dangerous to have them here." While the lion and the fox are both contemplating the nice meal they'll make of the bird, the bird turns the tables on them both by appealing for help. The bird asks the lion to perform an act of physical strength (moving some fallen trees to reveal the berry bushes) and the fox to figure out how to get reeds from the pond for building a nest (he tells the herons that the fishing will be better if they pull out the reeds). Both lion and fox are stymied by this appeal to their generosity, as they cannot eat someone they've helped, and they must help when someone weaker asks for assistance. Once they have taken responsibility for the bird by helping, they must do the right thing and leave it be. Hungry, and rather baffled at having chosen not to eat the bird, the lion and the fox leave that part of the forest and search for somebody else to eat.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Courage Question of the Day

"Typically, the hero of the fairy tale achieves a domestic, microcosmic triumph, and the hero of myth a world-historical, macrocosmic triumph. Whereas the former—the youngest or despised child who becomes the master of extraordinary powers—prevails over his personal oppressors, the latter brings back from his adventure the means for the regeneration of his society as a whole."
~ Joseph Campbell: The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Reflecting on the above distinction, have you found yourself or your kids more drawn to fairy tales or to myths?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Jean Labadie's Big Black Dog and Shivering in the Bath

Here is an old Quebecois story I ran across recently in Kevin Crossley Holland's The Young Oxford Book of Folk Tales. It's an easy story to tell with your own details, and it is just begging for exaggeration.   This is my retelling, but you can easily put it into your own words.

            So, this farmer, Jean Labadie, he had his suspicions about his neighbor, Pierre Martin. Yes, two weeks running Jean was missing chickens, and he was pretty sure Pierre was stealing them. Weasels would have left a path of destruction, but no, this was just one chicken at a time. But he could not bring himself to say, "Hey Pierre Martin are you stealing my chickens one by one?" With this on his mind he was helping Pierre Martin pull some stumps and he said, "Something has been stealing my chickens, sure, so I went to the Huron village and got me a big black dog. See him? - there he is at just over there."
            Pierre Martin squinted up his eyes to look across the field. "Where?"
            "That big black dog, with his red tongue dripping, and those big black paws, you see him there?"
            "Oh!" Pierre Martin went back to work.
            Sure enough, no more chickens went missing from Jean's yard. But one day he ran into Pierre Martin in town. "Hey, Jean, you should chain up your big black dog, he chased me down the road," said Pierre.
            "No, he's at my farm guarding the chickens," Jean replied, very surprised.
            "Looked like the same dog," Pierre said. "Big black paws, red dripping tongue. Keep him on a chain."
             A few days later, Jean again met Pierre in the town, and this time Madame Sasson was with him. "Was that your big black dog chasing my sheep?" she demanded to know. "That dog is dangerous."
            Jean Labadie raised both hands. This was getting complicated. "No, no, my dog is chained up in my yard. That is a different dog chasing your sheep."
            "No, your dog broke the chain," Pierre Martin said.  "You should take him back to the Huron village.  That's a mean dog."
            Well, for sure this was getting to be ridiculous, but the next day Jean Labadie hitched up his wagon and drove past Pierre Martin's house, shouting, "I'm taking this dog back!"  And he made a pretense of patting something down inside the wagon until he was out of sight.  He spent the day with his Huron friends, and then came home.
             Pierre Martin was waiting for him.  "Your crazy dog came back!  Chased some children and scared them right into church.  You can't keep a dangerous dog like that!  You should shoot him!"
             Now what could Jean Labadie do?  He could not at this point admit he had made up the dog, and although he was sure Pierre Martin was raking him over the coals, he was sure stuck.  "I'll shoot him," Jean Labadie replied.  "Satisfied?"
             There was a little small smile on Pierre Martin's face when he said, "Oh, I suppose I am."
             At home, Jean Labadie got out shotgun and whistled loud.  "Here you, dog!" he shouted.  Then he fired into the ground, and then dug a grave and filled it back in.  And he hoped that would be last he heard about his big black dog.

             I don't know about you, but usually when I've been afraid to ask a question, say what I think, or speak up, the problem only gets worse.  I have a personal story that I've told many times to the Lovely K. with much laughter.  This story features me in the bathtub while answering a phone call from a new business acquaintance.  There was a moment at the start of the call that would have been the appropriate time to say, "This is not a good time to speak - I know it's 11 a.m. on a business day but I was thrown from a horse this morning and now I'm soaking in the tub, so can I call you later?"  That moment slipped by, and I found myself trying to avoid any splishy, splashy, watery sounds that would give me away (So unprofessional! I was very concerned at that stage of my career about seeming very very professional!) The call went on and on much longer than I expected, while the water cooled and I began to shiver.  Somehow I couldn't summon the social courage to say, "You know, all this time we've been talking I've been in the bath."  And when this editor began giving me information to write down (clearly assuming I was sitting fully dressed at a desk) I pretended to write, making suitable "mmhmms" to indicate I was ready for the next bit of dictation.  My daughter howls at this last bit as I pantomime writing with a wet finger on the rim on the bathtub, nodding and shivering, wondering how I would explain this to my agent.
            Now, at the age of 50, I have long since let go (I think) a majority of the social fears that kept me quiet.  I don't like shivering in the tub, and I don't want to shoot any imaginary dogs. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

"To know what is right and not do it is the worst cowardice.  "
To learn more about what we mean by "Moral Courage", click here!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Quitters, Campers, and Climbers—Which One Are You?

I would have thought that one of the side effects of writing a blog about courage would be an increase in my own courage quotient. In fact, over these past months researching, discussing with Jennifer, and writing about how to nurture courage in kids, I’ve noticed more moments when I’ve wanted to quit than climb.  Granted I’ve recently taken on several new projects and a new job, my kids started new schools, and my husband started a new business in one of the toughest economic climates since the 1930's.  My learning curve is steep and the challenges real.  But as someone who’s prided herself on being what Dr. Paul Stoltz (1997) defines as a “climber” in life, noticing that my inner “quitter” is alive and well is, well, humbling. 

In his book The Adversity Quotient: Turning Obstacles into Opportunities, Dr. Stoltz outlines three types of approaches that people take in life, using mountain climbing as a metaphor.  Listed below are his definitions, excerpted from the introduction of his book (1997) :

"Quitters simply give up on the ascent—the pursuit of an enriching life—and as a result are often embittered.  Quitters tend to blame others, become overwhelmed, and allow adversity to endure longer than necessary (5-20% of folks, according to a poll that Dr. Stoltz and his team of experts took of 150,000 leaders across all industries worldwide).

Campers generally work hard, apply themselves, pay their dues, and do what it takes to reach a certain level.  Then they plant their tent stakes and settle down at their current elevation. Campers tend to let adversity wear them down, resort to blame when tense or tired, and/or lose hope and faith when adversity is high (65-90% of folks).

Climbers are the rare breed to who continue to learn, grow, strive, and improve until their final breath, who look back at life and say, “I gave it my all.” Climbers tend to be resilient and tenacious.  They focus on solutions versus blame, and they are trusting and agile (the rare few)."

The adversity continuum ranges from: "avoiding, surviving, coping, managing, to harnessing adversity." (This brief summary is taken from The Adversity Advantage: Turning Everyday Struggles Into Everyday Greatness by Erik Weihenmayer, Paul Stoltz, and Stephen R. Covey, 2006).

Here’s an example of how I was humbled recently by my inner quitter.  We had relatives visiting from the West Coast who wanted to see the place where our ancestors had fought as United Empire British Loyalists during the Battle of Saratoga.  We lost that battle, which provides some nice foreshadowing to what happened next. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wait for it... Wait for it!

Courage is the ladder on which all the other virtues mount. ~ Clare Booth Luce

For nearly a year now we've been talking about the nature of courage and courage development in children, and talking about courage as the mechanism for activating other values or qualities (some might like the word "virtues.") Today, here are my thoughts about one of those values, qualities or virtues: patience.

Patience can be activated by physical courage if it requires sitting still or restraining an impulse; it might be supported by emotional courage if it requires a belief in a loved one's ability to fulfill a promise; it might be activated by spiritual courage if it requires willingness to live in uncertainty about purpose or meaning during chaotic times. I'm sure by now our faithful readers can extrapolate their own examples for the six types of courage as they relate to patience.

We know that fear is inspired by uncertainty and lack of control. While we are waiting for something we are uncertain: will it happen at all? will I like it? will it be what I imagine? will I get a piece with blue frosting or yellow frosting? On top of that is the uncertainty of how we will manage our disappointment if IT doesn't fulfill our expectations. While we are waiting for something we usually have no control, since we can't speed up time or manipulate events. Thus, the ability to tolerate this uncertainty and lack of control requires courage, which then allows for patience.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

"We don't conquer this world's mischief and wrongdoing and malice once and for all, and then forever after enjoy the moral harvest of that victory.  Rather, we struggle along, even stumble along, from day to day, in need of taking stock yet again, with the help of a story, a movie, not to mention the experiences that, inevitably and not so rarely, come into our daily lives."
~ Robert Coles, The Moral Intelligence of Children
For more about moral courage,  click here!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Truth to Power

On this blog we've been discussing moral courage quite a lot lately.  One sign of a lack of moral courage is hypocrisy.  A story the Lovely K. has enjoyed hearing is from the Jewish tradition of midrash, or tales that fill in some of the sketched outlines of Bible stories with more detail. This is one of the more famous of the traditional midrashim, Abraham the Idol Smasher. 

In his youth, Abraham lived in Babylon, in Iraq, and his father was among the elite favored by the king.  Abraham had the habit of turning a studious gaze on power, and he had plenty of opportunity for doing just that. His father was a prominent idol merchant, who manufactured statues of this god, that god, any god his wealthy customers asked for. "How old are you?" Abraham might ask a customer, over his father's protests. "Sixty," might be the reply. "Strange, how a man of sixty will bow before a stone statue carved yesterday," Abraham would point out. (This was not so good for business!) One day, Abraham's father reluctantly left his son to watch the store while he made an out-of-town delivery, and woman came in with an offering of grain to leave before one of the statues. "I'll take care of it," Abraham assured her as she left.

When she had gone, he put the grain before one of the statues. And nothing happened. Then he put it in front of a different statue, and again, nothing happened. Certainly there was no argument from the first god who'd been offered it! Abraham then picked up a hammer and methodically smashed all the statues except one, and left the hammer in front of that idol.

Upon his return, Abraham's father was horrified to see the mess in the shop. "What in all gods' names have you done!" he cried out to his son. "Me?" said Abraham. "This idol here did it," he continued, pointing to the one unbroken statue. "What are you talking about, that stone has no power!" the father roared. Abraham nodded. "Exactly my point."

My daughter laughs at this story (okay, I use funny gestures and expressions as I tell it; it's not especially hilarious on its own). This one is always food for conversation about how often we see people say one thing but then turn around and say or do the opposite. We sometimes discuss why that might happen, and I try to keep the speculation compassionate - I don't want either of us to become sanctimonious or self-righteous about it, after all. From people with no power, saying one thing and doing another may be a matter of survival. But it is important to know what speaking truth to power requires, and it's always worth shining a spotlight of attention on doublespeak and hypocrisy from people in authority. I do include parents in that group, in the context of the family. Our children are always watching us, and noticing if our deeds and our words are in alignment. So I tell my daughter this story, and I ask myself privately, what idols am I paying lip service to that she may one day smash?

Monday, November 7, 2011

About Stories

"The true meaning of a story is not something one can extract from the story itself. The whole story -- character, setting, plot, theme, language - is the meaning.... Meaning in a story reflects our belief that there is a meaning in the universe, that no matter the disorder that frames our lives, in the center -- in the place that reveals who we are -- there is order."

~ Katherine Paterson

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Flourishing or Withering on the Vine

Lisa's recent post describing how moral courage has its roots in empathy had me thinking. What about those times when empathy is blighted or stunted? What becomes of moral courage then? We can look back into history to find periods of what we might call “low empathy” – times when public torture and execution were carnival attractions, when heavy-handed corporal punishment of children or slaves/serfs/servants was commonplace, when mockery and abuse of the disabled was the stuff of fun and games, when might made right, life was cheap, and persecution of selected out-groups was sanctioned by law. Under these conditions, how did “moral action” occur? How did the “family” of humanity uphold mostly positive behavior and tend toward care and flourishing rather than harm? In other words, how did the family make enough “right” or “good” decisions to survive in these times? We are born hard-wired for empathy, but someone has to teach us how to turn it on. As a gardener, I think of it in gardening terms, and so I see empathy as a seedling that must be nurtured and cultivated, or the flower can wither on the vine. How did this plant stay alive under some of the harsh conditions history has witnessed?

We might infer at least two things about this from a quick glance back at history. First, it is clear that there were often eras when civilizations did not flourish, but declined into darkness or anarchy. Historically, periods of chaos were often precipitated by environmental assaults (famines, plagues, extreme climate events such as prolonged droughts) or social upheavals (invasions, wars, and revolutions political, ideological, or technological). Often the social catastrophes followed hard on the heels of the environmental ones, magnifying the disruptive effect of both, and the chaos prompted by these crises sometimes took many generations to recover from. Scarcity of resources can narrow the scope of our empathy from concern for all others, to concern just for those most like us, to those closest to us, and finally, to ourselves alone.
         Secondly, we can see that extremely domineering law/justice systems (autocratic kingly dynasties, strict or wrathful theologies and political dogmas) can enforce good or "moral" behavior, or at least constrain immoral behavior, but primarily by threat of punishment (in this life or after), rather than by promoting empathy.  This suggests a tendency to rigidly adhere to the letter of the law, ignoring the spirit behind it.  Just as toddlers obey rules because they fear punishment, rather than because they have internalized the "spirit of the law" or the values behind the rules (fairness, accountability, cooperative flourishing, etc.), societies held in check by a totalitarian or despotic state or ideology can easily devolve into anarchy when that system collapses. (Remember Yugoslavia, to cite just one example from recent history?) A breakdown in empathy, or concern for others, which is prompted by disruption, upheaval and fear (on the family level or the societal level) may thus compel the parent or the state to lay down stricter and stronger rules/laws and punishments. This is a downward spiral that takes significant moral courage to reverse.

        Yet it is out of scenarios such as this that great moral heroes can emerge, from some hidden garden where the seeds of empathy were kept watered and sheltered. Because the norm in these scenarios is low empathy, these moral heroes almost seem to appear by superhuman agency, giving rise to mythologies and heroic legends. Yet we all have the capacity for empathy, and thus for moral courage. When times get tough we can run for cover and let the Devil take the hindmost, or we can stand our ground and focus on raising good citizens of the world. How does your garden grow?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Four Dragons

In the West, we frequently use dragons as a metaphor for evils, wrongs, or unnamed fears that must be conquered. In China, however, dragons are benevolent. Powerful, yes, but benevolent. One beautiful legend from ancient China speaks of the Four Dragons: Black Dragon, Yellow Dragon, Long Dragon and Pearl Dragon. Here it is, as I retold it to my daughter:

A very long time ago, there were no rivers in China. No lakes, no ponds, no streams or springs or waterfalls, either. There was only the great ocean in the east. Fortunately, the land was watered by rain, sent by the Jade Emperor, who ruled in Heaven. A time came, however, when the Jade Emperor stopped paying attention to the earth, and forgot to send the rains for a very long time. The earth began to dry out, and crops withered.

One day, as the Black Dragon, the Yellow Dragon, the Long Dragon and the Pearl Dragon were gliding through the air, they noticed an old woman kneeling in the dust below, her face streaked with tears as she prayed. Then they noticed that the earth was cracked and brown. "Why has the Jade Emperor sent no rain?" the Pearl Dragon wondered. "Let us go to him in Heaven and ask."

When they arrived at the throne of the Jade Emperor, he was annoyed that they had come to him, pointing out his failure. "I'll send the rain, now go away," he snapped.

The dragons left, relieved that all would be well again on earth. Yet when ten days passed with no rain falling, they knew the Jade Emperor had forgotten about the people on earth again. "Let us help them," said the dragons to one another. "We can fill our bellies with water from the great ocean and spray it onto the earth, can't we?" And so this is what they did. The moment the water touched the dry soil the wilting rice and wheat stood tall again, and the people rushed to catch the water in bowls.

Up in Heaven, the Jade Emperor caught sight of what the dragons were doing, and shouted with anger that they had taken it upon themselves to help the earth. "Bring mountains!" he roared to the Mountain God. "Crush those dragons!"

Faster than wind over rice paddies, four mountains came and bore down upon the dragons, pinning them to the earth. Yet the dragons were still full of water, and continued to pour it out, even as they were crushed. And so the four great rivers of China were formed, the Yellow River, the Long River, the Black River and the Pearl River, bringing water to the people forever.

I asked my daughter how many kind of courage she thought were involved in this story. "It took courage to show the emperor he had forgotten his job," she said. "And it took courage to go ahead and do the job themselves." "Do you think it also takes courage sometimes to pray for help?" I asked. She shrugged. "Maybe."

Compare this story of self-sacrifice to the story of Fenrir the Wolf, from Viking mythology, and The Legend of the Banyan Deer, from the Buddhist tradition. In all of these stories, the powerful put themselves at risk to help the weak. Endurance, love, charity, compassion, stewardship, responsibility and leadership are values that parents can model in their own behavior toward their children as examples of all six types of courage. Of course, it's often much easier said than done!

I know that, for myself, explaining to my daughter why I'm making a sacrifice is key. The sacrifice might be giving my money, or my mental time, or my physical effort to something other than my myself and my own immediate needs. Because fear is correlated to lack of control, we can infer that the opposite is true: courage is correlated to taking control. When I see something in the world that grieves me (poverty, injustice, hunger, etc.) I could allow feelings of helplessness overwhelm me. I could begin to fear that the world is a hopeless place. On the other hand, if I take even a small step, make a small sacrifice of money or time or effort to help alleviate that problem, I gain a measure of control. As a result, my feelings of futility diminish, and my fear subsides. Dr. Lisa has explained this eloquently in her posts about an internal v. external locus of control.

When we help others, we truly help ourselves. The greater our sacrifice, the less fear we will experience. Two quotations say this better, and more succinctly, than I have:

Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage." ~ Dale Carnegie.

It is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed. ~ Napoleon Hill

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Bloody Hook and Halloween Candy Poisoners

When I was a teenager, we heard that two kids from a rival high school had been "parking" near the reservoir late one Saturday night. A news broadcast interrupted the music on the radio to warn that a dangerous serial killer with a hook for a hand had escaped from a hospital, and was being hunted by police in the area. The teens heard some scratching on the car, and without pausing to investigate, the boy put the pedal to the metal. That car spit gravel as they spun around and sped back out to Route 35. When they got back to the girl's house, they were horrified to find a metal hook dangling from the rear bumper, still bloody from where it had been ripped out of a man's arm. Swear to God, totally true. My cousin's friend's dentist's baby-sitter knew them.

This spook story made the rounds when I was a teen in the 1970s, whispered in huddles of girls in the school halls and in the cafeteria. In fact, it had been steadily making the rounds since at least 1960, when this particular urban legend was first "reported." We greeted the news as marginally credible, totally gross, and perfectly thrilling. Sociologists and folklorists have been collecting such urban legends for years, trying to tease out what these contemporary "myths" reveal about our culture, just as anthropologists search for cultural clues in ancient myths. In the case of the Bloody Hook, the consensus seems to be that it's an effective warning not to go out necking with your boyfriend on Saturday night. Sex = mortal danger, in other words. We were happy to repeat the story, enjoying the thrill of grossing out friends who hadn't heard this "totally true story," yet, and speculating on how likely it was that it actually had happened.

And every Halloween, there were "reliable" reports and warnings about people who gave out poisoned candy and apples with razor blades in them. We didn't really believe it then, but I'm sorry to say that the "reliable" reports have gained potency year after year until now there are communities where Trick-or-Treating is a relic of a "safer" past. Parents are too fearful to let their children go door to door and risk being given chocolate laced with strychnine or arsenic. However, if you go to Snopes.com (the premier hoax-busting website) you will discover that there never has been a case of a person maliciously poisoning candy to give to Trick-or-Treaters.

Why are we so ready to believe our neighbors are capable of such things? Why, when hearing patently dubious claims, are we so gullible? Why do we not ask to see the police reports or news stories? Why, when someone tells us that such-and-such causes cancer, do we not ask for the source of this "information," but dutifully forward it to everyone in our address book? It's tempting to surmise that people just like to believe they are beset by dangers on all sides (otherwise why would they so willingly believe it?). With the Internet handy it's often the work of just minutes to bust a hoax, and yet hardly a week goes by when I don't find some heartfelt warning in my inbox, urging me to share it with my loved ones.

I think back to my teen years and the thrilling sensations I experienced when hearing about The Bloody Hook; among the feelings I relished the most were the ones relating to how safe I felt that my friends had shared it with me! We had each other's backs! No crazy Hook Man was going to get me because my girlfriends were looking out for me! That feels awesome, and it's worth having a crazy Hook Man on the loose. Maybe nameless teen angst needs a scapegoat, a boogeyman we can circle the wagons against.

But seriously. If we actually want to be safe, instead of just feeling safe, it's up to us to be critical consumers of information. A feeling of security is pointless without actual security, and a false sense of danger can distort a secure life in truly harmful ways, not the least by trampling joy and freedom. Intellectual courage can help us dig for verification of the alarms and warnings that come our way. It can help us teach our kids what healthy skepticism is, and teach us to be better at risk assessment (e.g. air travel not statistically dangerous, driving without a seat belt statistically really dangerous). Intellectual courage can save us from the bloody hook.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

"All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them."

~ Walt Disney

Monday, October 24, 2011

About Stories

"We construct a narrative for ourselves, and that's the thread that we follow from one day to the next. People who disintegrate as personalities are the ones who lose that thread."

~ Paul Auster

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Don't Be Scared!

I grew up in an old farmhouse that had two dim and musty attics, a dark, multi-chambered and cobwebby basement, a ramshackle garage and a variety of derelict outbuildings - corn crib, wood shed, henhouses, outhouse. The barn didn't actually come to us when my parents bought the house, but there it was right next door: huge, weathered, and full of mysterious, rusted farm equipment. All of these shadowy spaces were populated by wasps and/or spiders and/or mice and/or bats, bristling with potential splinters, and cluttered with hard-to-identify objects the previous (original) family had left behind. You can either interpret this landscape as spooky and ominous or fun and exciting. At various times in my childhood they were all those things in turn; what I can assure you is that at no time was I indifferent to these places. I was always attracted to them, either with a creeping dread or with a spirit of discovery, and I spent a lot of time in them.

Other friends lived in similarly old, minimally electrified, cavernous houses on large properties with tumble-down barns, sheds, guest houses, gazebos, stables, etc. This was the 60s and 70s, in rural New York, and the gentrification push from New York City hadn't yet begun. One of my friends actually lived on the grounds of a sprawling old mental hospital, and we wandered freely, poking our noses into rooms, or trying to wipe the grime off the windows of locked buildings so we could spy. We played in settings that have become horror movie standards, but back then it was just normal: usually fun, occasionally mysterious, with a once-in-a-while dip into real fright. But still normal. It was the brand-new homes with wall-to-wall carpeting, bright overhead lights, and shiny matching appliances that were truly foreign to me. Only one of my friends lived in such an outlandish house as that.

I don't know how many kids today get to roam around by themselves in such liminal spaces. As you may recall from my post about bedtime stories, liminal refers to thresholds. These places are neither here nor there, inside nor outside, inhabited nor empty. They are all between. They are openings, waiting in suspended time. It is here that the hero can experience the call to adventure, the invitation to step into the unknown and begin the quest. Yes, there is fear in the unknown, and fear in shadowy spaces. But I think that I, for one, spent much of this time unconsciously testing myself, measuring my courage against the courage I discovered in stories. If I had discovered a wardrobe that led into another world, I would have been ready.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

"Bravery is the capacity to perform properly even when scared half to death."

~ Omar Bradley


Monday, October 17, 2011

Courage Book Review - Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave

Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the BraveImagine putting Cinderella in a blender with Hansel and Gretel, and then adding some voodoo.  You will end up with something approaching Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, a retelling by Marianna Mayer of one of Russia's most beloved folktales.  There have been many retellings of this tale over the years, most often called Vasilisa the Beautiful; sadly, not many are in print at the moment.  Fortunately, this one is beautifully done, with magnificent artwork by K. Y. Craft.

First, a word about Baba Yaga, who appears in many many Russian tales.  Much has been written over the years about witches and wicked stepmothers and fairy godmothers in folklore.  Metaphorically splitting the "great mother" into a good/benevolent character and an evil/malevolent character simplifies things in tales and may help kids manage their conflicting feelings.   Ambiguity and ambivalence tend to muddy the waters.   That's why Baba Yaga is a fascinating figure.  She is almost always represented as a horrible, cannibalistic witch living in a house of human bones - but she still does good deeds from time to time, or takes righteous vengeance on behalf of the protagonist.  In this book you will find all the duality of the "great mother" inhabiting Baba Yaga - a powerful, dangerous figure who commands powerful natural forces and sends Vasilisa home to her wicked stepmother and stepsisters with a reward.  For this reason, this story (fairly lengthy and complex, and hard to summarize) is best suited to independent reading by older children who can manage the ambiguity.  My 12-year-old daughter was fascinated by it.

What may be most memorable about Vasilisa is her little doll, given to her by her dying mother.  The (secret) doll goes everywhere with Vasilisa, hidden in her apron.  When given food and drink, it comes to life to give comfort, advice and aid to the sad and lonesome girl.  This source of spiritual courage is easily recognized as Vasilisa's dead mother, referred to obliquely as "my mother's blessing" or "my mother's love," the source of her fortitude.  Vasilisa does much more than Cinderella ever had to do to earn her triumph at the end, and keeping her composure around Baba Yaga, as well as performing the difficult chores set to test her, are part of that.

For kids looking for a good creepy scare this Halloween season, the artwork in this book will not disappoint.  Full of Russian costumes, folkmotifs and intricate detail, the pictures offer much to examine - even if some inspire a hasty page-turn!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Raising a Good Citizen of the World

"I've learned that courage and compassion are two sides of the same coin, and that every warrior, every humanitarian, every citizen is built to live with both.  In fact, to win a war, to create peace, to save a life, or just to live a good life requires of usevery one of usthat we be both good and strong." 

Eric Greitens, Author of The Heart and The Fist:  The Education of a Humanitarian, The Making of a Navy Seal (2011)

So, what’s a parent to do to help raise a good citizen in this world? 
Let's face it our kids need to be equipped to be able handle increasingly complex moral issues involving a multitude of cultures participating together in a global economy (stacked precariously on  questionable foundations), with exponential population growth, and environmental concerns that don't leave any corner of our globe unaffected.  The ripple effect of our daily decisions from how treat our neighbor, to whether to vote or not, to where we spend our money, to how we deal with our garbage now send ripples farther and wider than ever before in history.  Learning to solve our planet's problems in sustainable, cooperative ways is more important than ever!

Here are Dr. Lisa's suggestions to consider:
  • Nurture a strong, secure, and loving bond with your child from infancy through adolescence.  Through this bond, you can become a powerful mentor for your child—especially during tough times. 
  • Show empathy and compassion for others.  Share out loud your curiosity about how others feel, think, believe, and live.  Make it okay to discuss differences and notice all the similarities the human family shares.
  • Offer lots of opportunities through family time and socialization opportunities for your child to develop care and concern for others, their community, and the environment.
  • Model the values you wish your child to embrace: honesty, kindness, etc.
  • Define the values that matter to you as a family, notice them in your everyday life,  discuss why they are important to you?  Pick a value a week, like those Lion's Whiskers  associates most with moral courage
    ·         Loyalty
    ·         Trust
    ·         Honesty
    ·         Integrity
    ·         Accountability
    ·         Responsibility
    ·         Fairness
    ·         Impartiality
    ·         Justice.
  • Show self-discipline in creating the kind of life you wish them to emulate.
  • Teach goal-setting and decision-making skills.
  • Discuss and weigh the pros and cons associated with simple and complex moral dilemmas involving not only “right vs. wrong,” but also even more complicated “right vs. right” or “wrong vs. wrong” scenarios. 
  • Show respect for yourself and others, especially your children.
  • Put the Six Types of Courage into action—let your child witness you walking your talk, taking personal responsibility, and having the courage to stand up for what you believe in.
  • Embrace a multicultural perspective for what is good and right in this world—you don’t have to eat, marry, or pray like others, but you can still model respect and tolerance for differences.  You can venture to be curious about, seek to understand, and even embrace different cultural beliefs as appropriate.
  • Model what a good citizen is for your child, and work together to make your family, community, and the world-at-large a better place to live.  Seek out lots of opportunities to do good and be charitable in the world together.
  • Pick a cause you believe in to contribute your time, money, signatures, and care to as a family.
  • Praise your child when they act in ways that are moral, good, and in sync with your family values.
  • Provide a community of like-minded friends, family members, teachers, religious and/or civic leaders for your child to learn from.
  • Read traditional moral tales (this is a link to Jennifer's bookshelf) and discuss the life lessons they understand imbedded within the story.  Jennifer regularly provides tales to choose from in her previous posts, too!  Just click on this link to find a treasure trove of moral courage stories to share.  Help them put into their own words the moral of the story, see if they can offer an example from their own life when they’ve had to “never give up,” “do the right thing,” “tell the truth,” or “be loyal to a friend”.  Highlight future opportunities for them to put into practice the particular value you wish them to emulate.  Narvaez, Gleason, Mitchell, and Bentley (1999) caution parents and teachers that simply reading moral stories to children does not guarantee their understanding of the core moral message.  In the imagination of a five year-old, a story like The Little Engine That Could (1930), the “Little Engine” could be faced with the nonmoral theme (one highly related to courage) of simply never giving up.   A nine year-old reader, on the other hand, may relate to the underlying moral lesson pertaining to importance of perseverance in order to help others. As children mature, and their prefrontal cortex continues to develop into young adulthood, they are capable of increasingly complex interpretations and better able to identify complex moral dilemmas and a story’s underlying moral message. 
For more guidance about how to help your child become a responsible citizen, Navaraez (2005) helped develop this downloadable book, thanks to funding from the U.S. Department of Education and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. 

How are you raising your child to be a good citizen?  We'd love to hear your ideas, too!