Courage may sound like a big feat for a small child. But courage, or the ability to overcome fear and doubt to learn and accomplish goals, is an essential piece of character development, and one that's never to early to learn.

“Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the strength to be who and what you are—despite the fear,” says Dr. Janette Marie Freeman, host of the radio show Empowered Living. It is a willingness to try new things, to take chances, to move out of your comfort zone. Parents want their children to be brave but, at the same time, not to be foolhardy. So how can you help your preschooler develop courage without taking dangerous risks?

Facing fear takes a lot of courage, but when one does it, fears lose their power. The same thing happens to children. So if you want your preschooler to develop courage, help her learn to face the things she fears most.

  • Reframe the situation. Many times your preschooler can gain courage by looking at his fears in a new way. A scary monster in her bedroom may only be a pile of clothes on a chair once the light’s flicked on. Try turning the light on and off until she can laugh at her fears. A barking dog may seem menacing, but if your preschooler can get the dog to chase a stick or a ball, he’ll feel more powerful and may even come to like the dog.
  • Begin with small steps. Rather than overwhelming your child by forcing him to confront his fear all at once, encourage him to take small steps toward the goal. Each forward movement builds courage, making it easier to take the next step and then the next. For example, if you want your shy child to play with others, begin small. Have him wave to another child on the playground. When he’s comfortable with that, encourage him to say hi. Gradually have him progress to side-by-side play, then interaction. Each success along the way will show him he can do this and will lead to the next step.
  • Challenge her to try new things. Never underestimate what preschoolers can do. If she wants to try something, give her a chance. And allow her to make mistakes. Children learn a lot from their mistakes as they go back and correct them. Courage is like a muscle that can be built up by exercising it. Each fear he overcomes builds courage to face a new challenge. Help your child find situations where he can demonstrate courage, and soon he’ll surprise you with his bravery.
  • Don’t overprotect. Parents who frequently warn children of the dangers in each new activity often do more harm than good. Although healthy fears and limits can save your child from real danger, overprotecting prevents them from learning how to deal with situations on their own. Without conscious thought, many adults repeat warnings they heard as children, whether or not the messages are valid. When you catch yourself sending those cautionary messages, stop and ask yourself if they’re true and, if they are, how likely they are to happen. Sometimes it’s better for your preschooler to get a few scrapes or bruises from trying something a bit beyond her physical capabilities than to stop her by instilling fear. If she’s encouraged to try, she gains courage that carries over into other activities, and soon she’ll develop a range of competences.
  • Demonstrate courage. To help you child become more courageous, let him see you doing things you fear. If you dread making a phone call, express your fear. After the call is over, mention the outcome. “Whew, I’m glad that’s over. She was angry, but we worked it out.” Or “Hey, that wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared.” Knowing that adults have fears and overcome them provides a powerful example for children.
  • Encourage him. “You can teach your child to demonstrate courage by encouraging him to be his best self, developing the spirit that will allow him to face difficulty, pain, danger or exclusion without fear,” says Mary Dixon Lebeau, parenting expert and mother of four.

Children who develop courage in the preschool years not only benefit by trying new things, but they gain an invaluable skill that will help them become resilient, courageous, and successful adults.