Empathy and Project Heart: #8 Moral Courage

August 18, 2020


Welcome to the eight of 10 blogs in our series all about the “9 Essential Habits that Give Kids the Empathy Advantage” and Dr. Michele Borba’s book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.

This week we're diving into Moral Courage.

What is Moral Courage? Moral Courage and Altruist Leadership (which we'll talk abut next week) are the final two habits, they help us live empathy as part of our daily lives. Dr. Michele Borba explains moral courage as “sticking your neck out”. It is an inner strength that compels you to help others, even when it is risky. Those with moral courage are often referred to as upstanders.

Why don’t kids always try to help? We know bullying is a problem in many schools, so where are the upstanders? Dr. Borba interviewed children from all over the world and found six common themes. Kids:

  1. Feel powerless
  2. Have unclear expectations
  3. Feel peer pressure
  4. Diffuse responsibility (someone else will help)
  5. Feel too bad to help (empathy over-arousal or compassion fatigue)
  6. Have weak adult support (no one believes them)

Imagine the kid who wants to help, maybe that’s even been you, but parents at home put more emphasis on grades and achievements than acting with kindness or being a helper. This child knows the right thing to do, but they don’t practice moral courage at home, so they just put their head down and try not to be noticed during bullying situations. When moral courage isn’t practiced, it isn’t developed and kids (and adults for that matter) are unable to exercise habits and behaviors that they know are right and just to help others around them. Rather than cultivating an attitude towards helping others, we are shaping kids to put more value on their personal achievements, be it academic or athletic, which ultimately results in individuals who are more “me” than “we” focused.

As adults, we can do little things that help develop moral courage like starting with small-scale courage, highlighting heroes and stop stepping in to rescue kids from their mistakes or uncomfortable situations. Maybe you think this sounds hard and it can be in the beginning, but the small efforts you put in will pay off tenfold. Kids who practice moral courage regularly are not only more likely to be upstanders instead of bystanders, they will be more likely to resist negative peer pressure, be happier and practice the type of risk taking that leads to creativity. Lifetime creative accomplishment has been shown to connect more to childhood creativity rather than IQ, which leads to a happier more successful life - exactly what those achievement focused parents were after in the first place!

Students who learn philanthropy through Project Heart can develop moral courage through designing their own impact/service projects. When was the last time you executed a project at work or with family and it went exactly according to plan? Assuming you’re like us, the answer is never! The more opportunities kids have to fail, the more opportunities they have to practice moral courage. Get your middle and high school aged kiddos going right away with this impact project worksheet HERE. You can download a mini-lesson to start your elementary kids on the path toward moral courage HERE, and then register for the full series of lessons when you’re all ready for more! When we remember that language matters and even small steps add up, the Project Heart Resources page has fun games for our youngest philanthropists and change-makers.

If you are a parent or teacher trying to prevent bullying, learn more about Dr. Borba’s "6 Teachable Skills” HERE. As we've shared before, watching movies and reading can be powerful ways to start these tough conversations about moral courage. HERE is a great list of movies from Common Sense Media and Parent Map’s The Brave Bookshelf: Books that build moral courage HERE

You can continue to put moral courage in action for the rest of your life and we want to hear about your journey! Share on social media using #myprojectheart and let us know the titles we should add to our Project Heart booklist.