Turning Pint-Sized Protégés into Mentors

December 1, 2018
Parent and Child Swimming

Mastering fearlessness begins by teaching it to someone else.

When my two sons, then aged eight and ten, sat down with me for our family movie night they had big hopes we’d be watching a superhero movie. Of course, this genre wasn’t yet entirely on the menu for guys their age—many action films are too violent—but slowly, the pantheon of Marvel and DC Comics were starting to unveil themselves to these scrappy, would-be heroes. They’d sit wide-eyed through most of them, picking out useful themes and lessons they could use in their own lives when super-villains often looked like schoolyard bullies with shockingly wide vocabularies for mean words, and surprisingly large numbers of henchmen during lunchtime showdowns.

But on this particular night we were watching Pixar’s Inside Out and my older son Tripp groaned, Mom, this movie is for babies. “Umm, no,” I said, handing out the popcorn, “tonight this movie is for you…and you are anything but a baby.” As the oldest of a pack of young cousins, he already knew this to be the case. He was their fearless leader whenever they needed mentoring and cheerleading to get them through trials he had already navigated. We parents do our best, of course, but an older sibling or cousin has the built-in advantage of age proximity to make their words and actions that much more relatable.

But even mentors can benefit from an occasional bit of coaching, and that was my hope for this particular rainy family night as we watched the film that investigates the emotional life of kids through its characters “Joy,” “Sadness,” “Anger,” “Disgust,” and “Fear.” My kids have what all children do: days when they’re in charge of their emotions and days when their emotions are very much in charge of them. And “Fear” often ends up being the one in charge more than any of them, especially the kind created by bullies.

Few of us manage to overcome fear without some kind of help along the way, and even as we parents try to serve as our kids’ bedrock, it seems equally important to prepare them to fill that role for someone else. Nothing helps our kids master a skill better than teaching it, and this chain of mentors and protégés is something that has worked remarkably well in our home.

My kids have days when they’re in charge of their emotions and days when their emotions are very much in charge of them and “Fear” often ends up being the one in charge.

Tripp was terrified of the ocean as a child and would only consider it if his father, Arthur, carried him in on his shoulders. So for years, his dad was Tripp’s proxy legs and strength and institutional memory about how this whole “wave thing” worked. The wary boy just went along for the ride, trusting his father while he learned the ropes of when you race over a cresting wave and at what point it’s better to dive under. Tripp developed timing, muscle memory, and gut instinct through protected practice until he was ready to finally go in on his own two feet, holding on tightly to his father’s hand.

Not long after that, he was willing to brave the waves just having dad by his side, and soon after he was helping his younger brother Garrett go through the same paces. Their younger cousins were soon inducted as new protégés once both brothers had mastered the waves, and they’ve now added surfboards, threatening to out-do even their dad as their agility catches up with the bravery he taught them years earlier on his broad shoulders.

Now imagine this same mentoring, but with the much scarier prospect of facing off with bullies and it’s easy to imagine how kids are potentially better equipped than the rest of us at helping each other through that harrowing gauntlet since they’ve just gone through it themselves. The process of overcoming fear occurs at a different pace and age for every child, but what does seem constant is the need for guidance as well as for the chance to guide.

If we do our jobs well as parents, we’re supposed to eventually put ourselves out of work, and I think of that as I watch these brave girls and boys teach each other how to be fearless.

Bolstered by role models like his father, older friends, and such cinematic heroes as Black Panther and Captain America, Tripp has learned to face off with schoolyard bullies who heckled him about his name, trying to trip him while chanting his name “Tripp.” He learned to dodge their verbal and physical taunts by harnessing some of his beachside bravery, but equally meaningful is his eagerness to pass along that bravery to other kids: after the bullies eventually moved on from him, Tripp made an effort to mentor their next targets.

School coaches and teachers always do their best to intervene—as do we parents when our kids encounter fear of all varieties in their young lives—but there is something to be said for pint-sized mentors who have only just recently learned these life skills for themselves.

While he’s not quite ready for his own action movie, Tripp has become something of a superhero on the schoolyard, and his protégés are now a widening circle of heroes-in-training, some of whom come over to watch Marvel and DC Comics movies with my guys. I’ve heard it said that if we do our jobs well as parents, we’re supposed to eventually put ourselves out of work, and I think of that as I watch these brave girls and boys exchange stories of schoolyard valor in our living room as they pass the popcorn.

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