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The Circle of Courage: How to rear children in a supportive world (#75)

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Jean Latting
November 10, 2023
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Dr. Larry Brendtro founded Resilience Resources based on his work with troubled and Indigenous youth.

Highlights from this week’s interview

Circle of Courage
Credit: Dr. Larry Brendtro

This week Jean interviews Larry Brendtro. Below are highlights. For the full interview, read the transcript. 

Download Transcript

Download Circle of Courage

Indigenous and minority cultures that value children


Jean asks about his child-rearing innovations.


Larry: Three of us became interested in how Native Americans raised respectful, responsible children. In the Lakota language, the word for “child” literally means “sacred being.” Very different from the European model of children as property.



Jean: Tell us how you came from a White background to working with Native Americans.


Larry: I’m from South Dakota, which is mainly Germans and Norwegians. There were reservations, but we had almost no contact. One of my college jobs was working with disabled Native American kids, so I got to work with a lot of them. Working with kids came naturally to me. Working with the adults was a little different: one time I went to the reservation to speak with a grandmother, who said nothing to me the whole time. Then I packed all the kids into my VW Beetle for a ride, and when I came back she gave me gifts, because I had made the sacred beings happy. And if you work and play with the Lakota, you become a relative. Later I was adopted by the Rosebud Lakota.



Jean: What was it like living in Newark?


Larry: It was like being on the reservation, except in the inner city. I lived with a Black family and saw from the inside what their lives were like and how privileged I was. 

Cultural humility


Jean: So you developed an expertise for fitting in.


Larry: I call it cultural humility. My professor at Michigan said, the day that you think you couldn't have ended up just like the most troubled of your kids, leave this field, because you have lost your empathy, and you're of no value. the unique thing instead of just theoretically training psychologists to work with troubled kids, we would get our credit by spending eight weeks in a camp, with kids from mental hospitals in juvenile detention facilities, and our professors are out there, and the kids are having all of their problems. Our whole philosophy was to build relationships and do exciting things together.



Jean: What was your major learning?


Larry: I learned that when you are able to tune in with the world, the inside world of the kid – on the outside, they may be brusque or indifferent or happy – but there's always this inside kid. And I think I learned to connect with the inside kid. 

Relating to adult-wary kids


Jean: Is there a difference between institutionalized, disturbed kids and troubled kids on the outside?


Larry: All young people have the same needs. And if you can respond to their needs, and you can connect with them, and show them respect, after a while, even disrespectful kids come around. They'll test you, they'll see whether you're provocable. And after a while, I actually started writing down how to build relationship beachheads with adult-wary kids, which would become a chapter in the first book that I ever co-authored.



Jean: Give us two tips for working with them.


Larry: First, don’t give up if they don’t respond quickly. Second, don’t let them suck you into power struggles. Also you can turn a problem into a learning opportunity.



Jean: Let’s talk about your books. What did you find out?


Larry: That there are commonalities among indigenous people around the world. In these indigenous cultures, throughout most of human history, humans lived in that kind of environment where the leaders were servants of the people. Where the community, which probably had 100 people in it, was committed to meeting the needs of everyone. The village all helped rear the young, and children and elders are held in great respect.

Circle of courage: Belonging, mastery, independence, generosity


Jean: What is the circle of courage?


Larry: When working on the book, Reclaiming Youth at Risk,[1] my Lakota colleague said, go visit George Bluebird – in prison for murder – have him look at the book and do the artwork. The circle is a symbol of everything being in balance and harmony; a young person has to connect and belong with somebody who cares deeply about him or her. They then are open to learning and mastery as they develop skills. They become more and more independent and responsible, in charge of themselves. And they can then give back to others in a spirit of generosity. what we now know is that the science of resilience and positive youth development end up with these things. And if you are having trouble in life, it's probably because your circle is broken, somewhere around those four areas. George was valued even in prison for his ability to give back.



Jean: Why do you call it the circle of courage?


Larry: these are the four things that you need, courage to surmount difficulties. It's tied with resilience, the ability to surmount difficulties. And even if you have a difficult life experience, if you can belong and connect with somebody who's supportive, that's key. If you can develop some of your talents, that's key. If you can take charge of your own life, and set the course of your destiny, you have power. And I think most important of all, if you give to other people, it comes back to you. If someone's better than you make them your model. And if you're better than someone, teach what you know to all who would like to learn. Then whenever you get something good, give it away as fast as you can, and see how far the good can spread.



Jean: How can someone get in touch with you?


Larry: My email is Larry.brendtro@gmail.com. That’s BRENDTRO.



Jean: As Larry said, at the end, we can make this a better world if we would all adopt the principles used by indigenous peoples. The four elements in his circle of courage summarize what it takes. Belonging: having a connection with someone else. Mastery: being able to feel you have mastered skills and have accomplishments. Independence: being able to make it on your own, basically to be an adult. And generosity: giving back.


Larry Brendtro headshot

Larry K. Brendtro

Director, Resilience Resources

Larry has written many books and hundreds of articles about resilience in children and Indigenous methods of child-rearing. He trains professionals in the field of positive youth development. He was president of Starr Commonwealth (serving troubled children in Michigan and Ohio), and teaches about children’s behavior disorders. He has served in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations as a practitioner member of the United States Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. A licensed PhD psychologist, he is director of Resilience Resources in Lennox, South Dakota.

Connect with Larry:

Email: larry.brendtro@gmail.com

Website: larrybrendtro.com


The views and opinions expressed in this or other blog posts at www.leadingconsciously.com are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Leading Consciously. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. How did your childhood measure up to the four principles? What about your life now?
  2. In what ways did your childhood or child-rearing reflect indigenous practices?

Leading Consciously concepts and skills
covered in this blog post:

  • Bridging differences
    • Learn to recognize dominant/nondominant dynamics
    • As a dominant group member, provide support to nondominant members
  • Conscious use of self
    • Seek to understand others' perspectives
    • Build resilience through self-affirmation
  • Initiate change
    • Commit to personal change
    • Gain support one person (or small group) at a time
    • Learn from resistance
    • Cultivate radical patience through the time lag of change
    • Acknowledge small wins


#BridgingDifferences   #CircleofCourage   #PowerofChange    #Belonging   #Mastery  #Independence   #Generosity

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We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings. The ability to lead consciously can help you gain true awareness and earn the respect and trust of others.  

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[1] Brendtro, LK, M. Brokenleg, and S. Van Bockern. Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future. Education Service 1990.