My youngest walked to an X marked with masking tape on the floor in front of the camera. She clenched and unclenched her shaking hands around the microphone, her discomfort obvious as she faced the dozen unfamiliar faces of people seated behind the videographer. The usually bustling lobby of the studio seemed foreign in the silence necessary for Video Showcase, an event in which a recording of each young vocal student’s performance would be sent to a local university’s music department for study by adults scholars earning their composition degrees.
Chloe, who was six, was meant to sing The Circle of Life, a tune she’d performed in her favorite cowboy boots at the studio’s Christmas recital because the brown leather made her feel tough. Today she hadn’t thought to wear those boots. She’d practiced for weeks, but was obviously nervous under the stark, fluorescent lighting. There was no stage to create distance between Chloe and her audience, no overhead brights to blind her from looking into their eyes, no cowboy boots to lend her some swagger.
Chloe opened her mouth to sing but soon realized she had missed her first cue. After that, her voice just wouldn’t come. She flashed a weak smile as if in apology and tried once more, murmuring a misplaced line. Embarrassed, she half laughed and half sobbed and, sympathetically, an audience member chuckled in reply.
That’s when she flinched. Chloe looked past the camera and met my eye. “I can’t,” she choked. As she turned back to the audience, her chin trembled and her face fell. Hands still clasped around the microphone, Chloe dropped her head and started to cry. A gasp and a “tsk” sounded from the seating area and then my daughter, sobbing, ran from the masking tape X into my arms.
That’s when the voice in my mind piped up again. Nonsense, it said. This isn’t fear. It’s courage.
I whisked her from the lobby to the bathroom down the hall where she hit her head with her fists until I brought them down to her sides. “I messed everything up!” she said. “Everyone is laughing at me!”
“No,” I promised. I knelt in front of her and ran a wet paper towel over her cheeks. “Every grown-up out there knows how difficult it is to sing in front of people. They think you are very brave. Right now, they are all worried about you.”
Weeping, she shook her head. “Now the rock stars won’t see me sing!” She’d been under the impression that “real life rock stars” would be critiquing her taped performance instead of college students.
I pulled her into a hug. “Sweetie, you can try again if you want. Take a deep breath.”
I held her for a minute or so until her breathing slowed. After a few last sniffles she whispered into my neck, “Mom, can you come up with me?”
I paused. Of course, I wanted to say. Hell, I’ll sing the song for you! The thought of my little girl walking away from the performance she had so looked forward to was heartbreaking, but the thought of her risking failure a second time in front of all those strangers… that just seemed impossible.
But I also heard a whispering in my mind: This is one of those moments. One of the important ones – the kind that aren’t easy but serve a purpose, the kind that lay the foundations of character. A knot formed in my throat. Couldn’t I just wrap her up in my scarf and take her home?
“I’m so sorry, Kiddo, but I can’t. This is something you have to do by yourself.”
She pulled away so I could see the expression on her tear-streaked face. Please, Mommy? Please? My heart stung, longing for the days when a tight enough swaddle protected her from all manner of ills. I forced myself to smile; if I was obviously sure of her, she could be too – right?
“Listen: if you don’t want to try again, you don’t have to. We can just go home. But Sweetie, I know you can do this. You’re awesome at that song! And you don’t need me. You don’t need anything except another try,” I wiped her tears. “What I will do is sit in the very front row and cheer you on and sing the words without making any sound. You can follow my lips if you mix up.” I reiterated that she didn’t have to try again. “But if you gave this another shot, well that would be a very, very brave thing to do.”
She didn’t reply. As we walked back to the lobby, she held my hand so tight that my knuckles were white even after I let go of her hand. Another child had taken her place in front of the camera, so Chloe leaned against a wall and waited: her face pale, tiny mouth only a thin line; eyes bottomless, wide, shining. She wrapped her arms around herself. I realized I was biting my lips, too, nervous on her behalf. I could never do that, I thought. She must be so scared.
That’s when the voice in my mind piped up again. Nonsense, it said. This isn’t fear. It’s courage.
When it comes to courage, psychology confirms what parents seem to know: Courage is like a muscle; the more it’s used, the stronger it becomes. Courage is the decision to lean into our vulnerability to overcome our fear. Conquering fear, psychology tells us, is paramount in the development of healthy self-esteem and self-perception, our personal empowerment, and our ability to master skills. That’s why in order to raise our children into strong, capable, resilient adults, we ask them to take on the world with nothing more than the might of their own daring hearts.
Courage is the decision to lean into our vulnerability to overcome our fear.
Think about it: from the earliest years of a child’s life, we expect them to meet all fears, discomforts, and insecurities with only the courage they’re able to conjure themselves (and, sure, our love and support). Be brave, we whisper to toddlers while dropping them off on the first day of daycare. There’s no liquor offered to ease awkward sandbox interactions, no tiny smartphones to check out on when no one wants to be your friend.
Later there’s school, mean kids and big dogs, book reports and bullies on the bus, puberty, the death of a pet, mom and dad’s divorce, broken hearts and great-grandma’s funeral, first dates, first-time sex, breakups and summer jobs and sketchy bosses, college applications, a billion other discomforts, and through all these things we expect kids to just cope. We steer them away from numbing agents and discourage the obliteration of difficult emotions because we know that’s where the lessons lie: in feeling the feelings. We know there’s more treasure to be found in the shaky walk to the masking tape X than there is in the applause of a standing ovation. It’s not that we want pain for our children. It’s that we want strength. It’s that, for them, we want capability and courage.
Why don’t we want the same for ourselves?
Common fears the majority of adults in our society regularly face are relatively benign: public speaking, social interactions, rejection. Like Chloe, I was a sensitive kid, prone to anxiety. But, like her, I was a brave kid, too, the kind that demanded her words be heard even if she stumbled her way through them. One St. Patrick’s Day, I presented the tenets of Irish dance during a schoolwide assembly. It didn’t matter that I’d never taken a lesson in my life or that I’d mistaken Russian folk jigging for the Gaelic medium: I was a newcomer to Canada (technically from England, but our village was nicknamed ‘Little Ireland’ for the heritage of our populous), I spoke with a northern Brit accent, and my small town teachers bought my claims that I was basically the star of Riverdance. I took to the stage and kicked wildly until my mother unexpectedly showed up and I saw the dumbfounded look on her face. The point is, back then I could dance in front of a hundred people simply because it was fun.
Less than five years later, I’d feel the gymnasium wall against my back at my first junior high dance, my girlfriends and I too nervous to hit the floor. But before long Spice Up Your Life started to play, and then Oops, I Did It Again, and finally The Real Slim Shady. It took three songs (and maybe some baby blue lash glitter and plastic butterfly clips) to re-conquer that fear and then, again, dancing was fun! And the longer I stayed on the dance floor the easier it was for my friends and I to sing to one another, to test silly choreography, to completely lose ourselves.
And it stayed that way until about a year or so later when kids started showing up tipsy with test-tube shooters taped around their calves, hidden under baggy jeans. Suddenly, they were having fun and I was missing out. I felt stupid, like I was dancing like a baby, the way little kids do. Didn’t I know how much more fun it was to drink?
And it was.
Drinking was a blast. It made everything easier! With alcohol involved, there was no effort needed to loosen up. There was no first-dance nervousness; no vulnerability until the endorphins kicked in around song number four. Booze made us start at song ten. Made me ready to party as soon as the speakers blasted. It was so effective that any time dancing was involved, drinking became a given. Only a few years later and the thought of dancing sober was laughable in its impossibility. Even after booze stopped being fun and resulted more often than not in embarrassment, arguments, illness and depression; drinking simply became necessary. How could I move without it? By then my confidence was shot; my self-esteem: non-existent. Eventually, my feet were nailed to the floor no matter how many shots I threw back. There was no more joy. I didn’t want to dance. I just wanted to be alone.
I had sought to avoid or numb discomfort at every turn. So, newly sober, everything felt like I was doing it for the first time. Despite my thirty years of lifetime experiences, my courage muscles were baby-small.
When I decided to cut alcohol from my life, almost everything felt like Chloe’s terrifying walk to that X. Through most of my adulthood I had sought to avoid or numb discomfort at every turn. So, newly sober, everything felt like I was doing it for the first time. Despite my thirty years of lifetime experiences, my courage muscles were baby-small. I was like a kid again, armed with nothing but my own resolve to somehow enjoy life’s challenges: work parties and award speeches and weddings and family gatherings. Eventually, I did relearn to embrace the joy of conversation, to dance for the sheer fun of it, to sing loud simply because it feels good. And if you’re never relied on a substance outside of yourself to do these things, you don’t know what a big deal that is.
But so many of us do rely on substances outside ourselves. How often do we put off Karaoke challenges (it’ll take a few shots before I’m getting up there!) or need something to take the edge off rough days (Jesus Christ, I need a cigarette)? How many of us fortify with liquid courage before taking a podium, or spend the last exhausting hour of our kids’ day ignoring them, zombie-zoning out on our phones? Some can’t sit still through a movie without a toke; and more than will admit it haven’t experienced sober sex. Because few of us practice the wholehearted courage we demand of our children, many of us lose the ability to do natural-but-vulnerable things like singing or dancing or speaking or coping or making love without outside interference. And when we can no longer do those fundamentally human things, well, what do we become?
Because few of us practice the wholehearted courage we demand of our children, many of us lose the ability to do natural-but-vulnerable things like singing or dancing or speaking or coping or making love without outside interference.
We become sad. We become fearful, unsure, and self-conscious. Our routine failure to conquer small fears on our own power keeps us reliant on external sources of emotional protection. So we access that protection to fabricate courage, but bypassing the hard part means there’s no payoff for our participation; there’s no increase in confidence or esteem, no mastery of the art associated with the fear, no sense of empowerment over our inner state. In order to live with this ever-accumulating-but-never-conquered fear, our psyche orders us to develop anger, the only emotion with the ability to manufacture a phony sense of power in those who have little.
And this small way of being makes us bitter. Who do they think they are? we ask of those who have built their confidence test by test. We see their calm and we bring our chaos, fooling ourselves into believing that our inebriation makes us free spirits while ignoring the fact that if we need tequila to do something as instinctual as move our bodies to music, we are not free, not in the least, not at all. Eventually, our dependence on those things outside of ourselves becomes so great that we can’t tolerate even the mildest of life’s breezes without it. Eventually, we need that thing just to fake a smile.
And worst of all, we forget – we don’t even know – that inside us there’s still a little girl capable of bravery. A child more than willing to test the power of her own might. We don’t even know she has everything we’ve ever needed to be whole, and bold, and free. We don’t even know she can dance in front of a hundred, that she can sing even when her hands shake.
The second time my baby took that microphone, her voice barely hung on. Breathless, she skipped words, missed cues, left full lines unsung. Her hot eyes kept losing focus, blinking wide as if searching for danger. She soldiered through, swallowing hard; her mouth visibly, painfully dry, words muffled as her lips stuck to her teeth. But she sang, though fear parched her throat. She insisted on her song, even when her mouth didn’t want to make a sound. Technically, the performance was her worst. But in actuality it was the best. When the music came to an end, I was the first on my feet. Chloe smiled, bright and strong. “Thank you,” she spoke into the microphone. She’d earned the treasures of that difficult walk. And she got that standing ovation.