The Courage of Children
'The King's Speech' teaches us about kids who face crippling fears
Courage is a standard theme in popular movies, from Saving Private Ryan to the remake of True Grit. But The King’s Speech, the charmingly modest film that captured four Academy Awards, explores an entirely different kind of courage than the quality that’s on display in battle, or on the frontier. It’s not about scaling mountains or penetrating enemy lines; it’s about vaulting emotional barriers and facing down internal foes.
The most poignant scene in The King’s Speech comes when a shaken Bertie, the painfully shy, tongue-tied second son of George V, arrives unannounced at his commoner speech therapist’s home and begins to unburden himself for the first time. He was not present for his father’s death, Bertie tells Lionel.
“I was informed after the fact that my father’s last words were, ‘Bertie has more guts than the rest of his brothers put together,'” he stammers. Visibly conflicted, he adds: “Couldn’t say that to my face.”
The scene that follows is an eerily apt depiction of the kind of breakthrough moments I’ve been privileged to witness as a child psychiatrist. Bertie comes across a half-finished model airplane one of Lionel’s sons was working on when he arrived. When he comments ruefully that as a royal child he was never allowed to make models, Lionel encourages him to paint glue on the struts. Brush and model in hand, the future king—finally freed to be the child he wasn’t allowed to be—begins for the first time to tell his therapist where he’s hurting.
We begin to get a portrait of the torments of Bertie’s childhood: The nanny who preferred the older brother, tutors who forced the left-handed child to use his right hand, painful metal braces to straighten his legs. The young stammerer was routinely teased by his brother, who was in turn egged on by his father. “B-b-b-b-bertie,” the adult Bertie mimics, dabbing glue on the model plane. “Father encouraged it. Said it would make me stop.”
It’s a turning point in the film, as we begin to understand just how much courage it took to be him as a child with a crippling stammer, and how much courage he would have to muster to rise to the occasion to lead the nation, as George VI, through World War II.
It’s not the kind of courage that’s usually celebrated on the big screen, with improbable special effects, rippling muscles, and Mel Gibson-style blood and gore. Indeed, you could call it the opposite: not the guts to do something others can’t, but the guts to do something that’s easy for other people but crushingly difficult for you.
It’s the kind of courage those of us who work with children who have psychiatric and learning disorders see all the time, when kids struggle to overcome their terrors, or work twice as hard as others to accomplish what’s expected of them.
As therapists, we see countless kids overcome humiliation and fear other kids just don’t have to contend with. We see kids muster enormous energy to conquer their internal enemies, just as we watch Bertie push through his agony to become the king he wants to and needs to be.
We suffer with Bertie as he fails dismally, mortifyingly, to deliver a greeting from the royal family to a hushed stadium full of waiting subjects. And we see him endure the rage of his royal father at his utter inability to read a message into a radio microphone. “Sit up! Straight back!” George V barks at his grown son. “Face boldly up to the bloody thing and stare it square in the eye as would any decent Englishman! Show it who’s in command!”
It’s excruciating to watch, no less than it is to watch kids be teased and bullied because of their deficits, knowing that, while they appear weak to other children, they are in many ways tougher, stronger people than their tormentors. That’s why we see many kids who overcome problems in childhood—dyslexia, ADHD, anxiety disorders—go on to accomplish extraordinary things. They have developed formidable courage.
Natalie Angier explored this in a New York Times piece, interviewing experts to pinpoint just what courage is. It’s not the same thing as fearlessness, they report—it doesn’t take courage to charge into the line of fire or run into a burning building if you don’t feel fear. Courage is not a lack of fear, but the act of overcoming fear. It is, as one researcher puts it, “behavioral approach in spite of the experience of fear.”
That’s clinical language for what inspires us in The King’s Speech and in the children we are privileged to help every day. We know that Bertie is a better man, not to speak of potential king, than his glib, self-absorbed brother. And we know that every child or adolescent who struggles to overcome obstacles others don’t face deserves not only our respect, but our help. Psychiatric and learning disorders aren’t caused by weakness, but they are overcome by strength.