In parenting seminars, I will often ask dads to estimate how often in a year they tell their children to be careful and safe. Once they settle on an estimated number in their mind, I ask them also to estimate how many times in a year they challenge their children to be courageous, brave, bold, or to take action for the sake of someone else that might put them in harm’s way. The response is almost always the same; they tell their kids always to be careful and safe, and rarely ever ask them to be self-sacrificially courageous and brave. There are enormous deleterious consequences in raising a generation of people who believe that there is nothing more important than their comfort and safety.
Dads must be intentional. Every interaction with our children shapes how they view the world. Dads must intentionally train their children toward gospel-centered physical and moral courage. Many parents are aghast at the thought of teaching their children that there are times they should put themselves in harm’s way and consider doing so inherently reckless. The distinction between recklessness and courage is an easy one to make. Recklessness has no higher purpose than the danger itself, whereas courageousness is self-sacrificial for a higher, others-centered purpose. As John Wayne put it, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway,” and I would add, saddling up for the self-sacrificial good of others.
Christian dads ought to make courage and bravery a significant part of the family vocabulary. Train toward courage. To live as if nothing is more important than personal safety is to live an empty, selfish, and ultimately dissatisfying life. That kind of entitlement mentality only leads to self-referential pride and discontentment. Jesus is our model and embodiment of true self-sacrificial courage. His meekness was not weakness, his humility was not moral feebleness, and his courage was costly. No one can be both safe and large-hearted. Too often, we dream about our children leading noble and courageous lives while we train them daily toward cowardice.
To prepare children to face the challenges of adult life a father must not parent out of their own personal neediness. Too often, parents enjoy being needed and are threatened by thoughts of their child’s independence. To possess an entitlement mentality while being functionally dependent on others produces apathetic and helpless young adults unable to face the routine challenges of life. Empty flattery combined with parental coddling is a toxic combination that usually results in a child stricken with malignant fears. A child that is apprehensive about embracing rites of passage like moving up to the next grade in school, getting a driver’s license, trying out for an activity, and finishing high school is revealing a lack of maturity and courage.
The truth is that every child will become independent, either in a healthy or unhealthy way. A self-centered child without courage will become mentally independent while being functionally dependent. Their mindset will be: “I deserve to do whatever I want, whenever I want, and God and other people should help me do so.” A mature child will become functionally independent while being humbly mentally dependent on others. Their mindset will be: “I have been blessed by God and others. I have given me much. Therefore, I should respond by taking personal responsibility for myself and helping care for others. I will always need advice and counsel, family, and friends, but I must own the life God has given me for His glory.” Paul’s balance is beautiful: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
A child is not prepared to leave home for college or career merely because they are intelligent, well-mannered, gifted, or accomplished. C.S. Lewis was correct when he wrote, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” Courage makes our other virtues operable in our lives. The apostle Paul said “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14). It is also true that virtues without the courage to live them out, are dead as well. Courage allows our children to personally own their beliefs when they pull out of our driveway headed off to college or career. Our parenting goal is not to keep our children as idolatrous trophies but to prepare them as arrows we shoot out into the world for God and his glory.