Tanner: "Mom, I really have to go to the bathroom!"
Me: "Can you hold it for 20 minutes until we get home, buddy? You're a tough cookie, right?"
Tanner: "What's being tough have to do with it? Don't you mean brave?"
His response made me giggle, but then I got to thinking about what he'd said. I had twenty minutes while he squirmed in the backseat after all.
I thought about how many times I'd called him tough. I used the phrase when he didn't even flinch while watching his biopsy. I used it when he broke both bones in his arm when he was three. I said he was tough when he fell off of his bike and didn't cry. I used the phrase when he got punched or hit his head or scraped his knee. I used it when he bounced back after getting his feelings hurt. I was always telling this little boy that he was tough.
But my little boy is smarter than me. He's smart enough to know the difference between tough and brave. The only significance that toughness can claim is its durability; its ability to withstand the blows, whether physical or emotional. But bravery. Now there's something fine. Bravery is not ability but willingness. Bravery is the courage to do what is required or necessary or right, staring the unpleasantness or fear or discouragement directly in the eye.
I'm proud to say that I have a son who is not only tough, but immensely brave. And that bravery, that courageous spirit; will serve him well throughout his entire life.
As a society we value toughness. We encourage our little ones not to cry or to show any sort of emotion that we deem as negative. We tout impenetrability and insensitivity. We think that toughness makes us better and right.
Just think of the impact that a generation of youth who were taught to be brave instead of tough could have. Think of the force for good and the unquenchable power.
I had a an eye opening experience several weeks ago when I was in the grocery store with my older son, Hunter. We were just cruising the aisles, checking off our list. There was a man in one of the electric carts doing his shopping as well. Crutches rested on his cart and he had an extensive cast on one leg. He was examining the cereal and I could tell he was trying to stand to put one bag back in exchange for another.
My response was automatic: "Oh, here, let me get that for you."
He smiled and told me which one he needed instead. He expressed thanks and we exchanged pleasantries. When my son and I got to the end of the aisle, I was quickly surprised by Hunter's comments.
"Mom, you're a nice person," he simply stated.
"Well, thanks buddy."
"That must be why people like you. Helping that guy was really nice. That's what everybody should do, right?"
I just stared at him for a second. "Well, I hope that's what everybody would do. That's what I want you to learn to do. We help people that need us."
"Yeah, but that's not what everybody does. I'm glad I've got a nice mom." And off he went, back to business.
I just stared at him again . . . a little concerned that my 8-year old already understood that not everybody was a nice person and that there are far too many people who forego doing the right thing. Okay, and I might have teared up a little. I mean, that's the nicest compliment I've ever gotten from one of my children . . . and I'm pregnant, so lay off.
But I made a resolution right then and there. I decided that my children would never see their mother failing to be kind. Not because I didn't want to and certainly not because I was too busy. I was determined that they would have an example to follow. I've always told my kids that I'm not concerned with how smart they are or what they like to do or wear, but that I'm very concerned with the kind of people that they are. If they receive any praise from their school or church teachers, neighbors or friends, I want that compliment to be that they're kind and compassionate. That's it.
This most recent experience with Tanner has made me realize that I don't just want to hear that my children are kind, but I also want to know that they're brave. I find their toughness to be mostly insignificant. But their bravery . . . now that's something I value. I want children who stand up for what's right, even if they're standing there entirely alone. I want children who are kind even when everyone around them chooses to be mean. I want children whose hearts are sensitive enough to understand the feelings of others and who possess an intrinsic desire to serve and to lift, rather than to hurt and demean. I want kindness to be their trademark.
And mostly, I want bravery to be their most common descriptor. So instead of praising them for their athleticism or their intelligence or their success, I hope my children hear their parents constantly commending their bravery and their goodness. I can't imagine the influence of children who value those two things more than anything else.