"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do. "
~ Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt knew something about fear. Although she lived a remarkable life as an outspoken First Lady of the United States and great humanitarian, later serving as the chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, she began life as an extremely quiet, sensitive child. And perhaps in part due to her difficult childhood (she was orphaned by the age of ten), she learned that “fear is something to be moved through,” as she famously said.
Like just about anyone who reads anything about E.R., I’ve always had great respect and even a certain about of awe for this remarkable, trail blazing woman who cared deeply about social justice and worked to improve the lives of the underprivileged throughout her own life. She found the strength to live a life truly “before her time” with grit and tenacity, overcoming the betrayal and later death of her husband and a lifetime of depression.
When I was a young woman facing daunting choices such as moving to Europe by myself (in an era before cell phones and social media), or leaving my friends and family in the Midwest to follow my heart to California, I always thought of Eleanor. In her writings and the way in which she lived her life, she taught us her “secret”: fears are to be faced head on – be afraid, but do it anyway.
Every one of us is afraid to do something. Childhood in particular can feel like a scary time as kids are regularly asked to do things that frighten them, like walk into an unfamiliar classroom, dunk their heads under water, or ride their bikes for the first time with the training wheels removed. While most adults forget how it feels to be outside our comfort zones, children live outside their comfort zones throughout their childhoods. As parents, we seek to protect our children, for we mommies suffer whenever any of our children suffer. Mommies would rather shoulder their children’s burdens, shield them from their fears, and solve their problems. I made such a mistake as I tried to help my son Truman with his paralyzing fear: speaking. Mostly, I spoke for him when he was unable.
But that’s not what Eleanor advised. She did not say, you must have your mommy do the thing you think you cannot do. She did not say that you must have your mommy look your fear in the face! That sounds ridiculous, but don’t we sometimes err when we try to “help” our kids avoid the hard stuff?
Last summer, as Truman contemplated his quiet, limited world with Selective Mutism, I started to see signs that he was ready to challenge himself, to work on facing his greatest fears. He started experimenting with talking to adults he didn’t know (which was, perhaps surprisingly, easier than talking to those he knew). He began “slipping” and occasionally blurting out an excited utterance: “Whoa!” And most of all, Truman told us how much he wanted to be able to talk, to be free of his fear. Soon Truman’s desire to talk grew stronger than his fear of talking.
While attending Camp Courageous, a summer camp designed for kids with Selective Mutism, Truman spent just one fairy-tale week practicing interacting with other kids and adults, ordering at restaurants, speaking to the woman cutting his hair, chatting with the man ringing up our groceries and taking advantage of every other opportunity that arose. I watched his confidence grow with each successful attempt. He would tell me, “all the kids at camp have my problem! They’re just like me!” His camp therapists gently prodded the kids through their speaking exposures with such a sense of fun and joy that the kids sometimes forgot they were afraid. And then they talked.
Truman and I spent the remainder of the summer practicing his new skills and talking a lot about fear and courage. Truman defines courage as, “being afraid and doing it anyway.” My brave kid began the summer a silent kindergartner and ended it a LOUD, confident first grader. As I picked him up from his first day of school, a fellow classmate came up to me and said, “Truman is now the loudest kid in the class!”
After spending most of his six years watchful and silent with nearly every adult he encountered, Truman recently declared, “I’m over my ‘talking problem’!” I would call the recovery of his voice a miracle - and I have certainly wished for such a miracle - but all of the credit belongs to a brave boy named Truman, a boy who speaks freely. Each Friday, as I work in Truman’s classroom, I watch him speak without hesitation, even raising his hand to speak! Last week, he blurted out, out of turn and then sheepishly glanced my direction. I gave him a misty-eyed wink. And he gave me a slight, knowing nod.