I have coached soccer for nearly 20 years, working with boys and girls from a wide variety of families. Many of the kids from religious homes are Christian, and I'm always interested in how these kids behave around their peers. Does their faith make a difference?
One thing I've noticed is that the kids from Christian homes tend to swear less. Yes, this does make them a little bit different. But here's another difference I've seen, and it's heartbreaking: Most of these kids are far more inhibited than their secular peers, and in the wrong way. They're less likely to establish healthy boundaries with other kids. They're less likely to stand up for what's right, to defend themselves or others. It's as if they've been trained from toddlerhood to think that conflict is wrong — that nice boys and girls are cautious, compliant and pleasant instead of assertive, virtuous and courageous.
Long ago, Job lamented, "Where shall wisdom be found?" (Job 28:12). Today I might add to that timeless cry the demise of courage.
Courage is the ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty or intimidation, whether for ourselves or for others. Courage is pivotal, because in order to truly possess any virtue a person must be able to sustain it in the face of difficulty.
In other words, courage is the foundational virtue upon which others rest. Or don't.
Reflecting all of Jesus
Our children aren't becoming wimpy because we're teaching them to be humble, loving and patient. These are noble, essential qualities of Christ-like character — but they’re only part of God’s instruction. As parents we often overemphasize certain aspects of integrity at the expense of other important character traits. We teach our kids to be kind, loving compliant — yet marginalize or even eradicate the more rugged virtues of boldness and courage.
We need to help our kids understand and recognize a more complete picture of Jesus, the Jesus who said, "Leave her alone" (John 12:7). Read the Gospels, and you see that Jesus is the Lamb who was offered as a sacrifice for us. But read Revelation, too; do we know and remember that He's also the Lion, God's ultimate warrior?
Yes, Jesus is meek — He said so himself. Meekness means yielding and being submissive. But ask your kids: "What is Jesus meek toward?" We cannot read the Gospels and conclude that Christ was submissive to the will of man, which is tainted with self-interest and is sometimes wicked. Jesus is submissive to His Father's will. This is what we should be teaching our children. And being submissive to our Father's will sometimes bring us into conflict with this world.
Meekness isn't false humility or timidity or fear of conflict. Meekness is knowing who we are, believing that what God says is true and then submitting to Him because we love Him in response to His love for us.
The do not's — but also the do's
I think many parents oversimplify what it means to have courage by telling children that they need to exercise courage to say "no" to others. Yes, that's important. But courage is more than just what we avoid — it's about the actions we choose as we encounter and interact with others.
Jesus chastised the religious leaders of his day for "straining out a gnat" while swallowing an entire camel (Matthew 23:24). They overemphasized minor matters and in the process ignored weightier matters like justice, mercy and good faith. I sometimes do the same thing as a parent, and I'm not proud of the reason: I strain at gnats because in some ways it's easier than teaching and modeling for my kids a Christ-like example of what matters most. This is a common theme in Christian parenting, and often in children's ministry. We teach our kids that the way to build integrity is by avoiding sin — their spiritual training mostly consists of what a person shouldn’t do. What is missing is a full instruction about what to do. Yes, avoiding sin is good and right, but what about raising children known for fortitude, courage and a love of justice?
Help your kids recognize that courageous character is defined just as much by acts of commission — choices and actions that are wrong — as it is by the acts of omission: not making choices that are right. Warn your kids against ignoring opportunities to reflect God's love or meet a need. When we fail to love, serve or stand up for truth, we fail to follow God's will for our lives, a point made very clear in Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and His admonition that loving those in need — the "least of these" — defines our service to Jesus himself (Matthew 25:31-46).
And help your kids see that a courageous, Christ-like love sometimes has "tough" implications. When we encourage our children to be more loving, we usually mean for them to do nice things for others. We must also show them that love includes caring so much about someone that you confront him when he’s wrong and defend him when he’s under attack.
Fear and cowardice
Here's another way of looking at it: How often have you diagnosed a child's behavior as cowardice? What do you say after your son tells you that he witnessed a friend being mocked or bullied, and that he just stood there with the group? Have you helped him recognize that the sludge-like feeling gumming up his soul is a result of cowardice? Do you explain that cowardice is a normal, but insufficient response to seeing someone unjustly treated? Do you remind him that being Christ-like does not mean he is to remain inert and innocuous?
I'll admit, this isn't an easy topic to talk about. Warning against the corrosive nature of cowardice usually isn't even on our parental radar. But in example after example, the Bible warns against cowardice. In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus condemns fearful living.
Yes, fear is a major enemy of love, but let's be clear: Fear is a normal, perhaps even necessary presence whenever we’re given the opportunity to grow courage — or cowardice. What matters is our response to fear.
If we are to raise assertive — not passive or aggressive — children who are able to live abundant lives and are better able to love God and others, we must begin helping our children grow the tougher virtues of boldness and courage. I'm talking about children who are well-schooled in assertive living and are more likely to become powerful and redemptive forces for good. Children who as adults are better able to handle their own tears and to help dry the tears of this world. Children who throughout their lives can love their neighbor and ''encourage the fainthearted [and] help the weak'' (1 Thessalonians 5:14) through sharing their strength and goodness.
Paul Coughlin is the founder of The Protectors, an organization devoted to helping kids stand up to bullying. He is also the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy.