Reclaiming youth at risk


Sheryl Salloum
Focus on Adoption magazine

A Lakota Sioux and Anglican minister, Dr Martin Brokenleg has developed an acclaimed program for “reclaiming kids and youth.” The Circle of Courage is a philosophy that promotes four nurturing experiences necessary for children—belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity.

Early European anthropologists described Native American children as radiantly happy, highly respectful, and courageous. Refined over thousands of years, Native Americans’ approach to child rearing challenges the narrow perspectives of many contemporary psychological theories and zero-tolerance, get-tough rhetoric.

Dr Martin Brokenleg presented his inspiring views on successful parenting, based on Native American parenting philosophy, at AFABC’s recent Celebrating Family Adoption Conference. He sees adoption, and other ways of providing children with family connections, as vital. He stresses that hurt or abused children can be “reclaimed” physically, behaviourally, emotionally, and spiritually through such connections.

Dr Brokenleg has developed an acclaimed program for reclaiming kids and youth. Based on the medicine wheel, the Circle of Courage is a philosophy that promotes four nurturing experiences necessary for children to grow into responsible, fulfilled adults. These are belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. Sadly, many of the techniques used by today’s parents and schools are the antithesis of what he espouses.


The first and most crucial experience is belonging. This means that children must feel connected or attached to their parents, family, and community. Though times of crisis are when children most need to feel that they belong, unfortunately, says Dr Brokenleg, these are the times when most parents and caregivers punish and alienate their youngsters. Rather than punish the child at this point, parents or caregivers should tell him or her that they are loved. They should then work with the child to find responsible solutions. In a dramatic example, Dr  Brokenleg explained that his daughter, who is a teacher, thought it a waste of time and effort to punish school misbehaviour with detentions. She convinced her principal that during detentions students should receive help with their homework. When that was completed, the youth worked to develop strategies that would assist the community. The result of this was that instead of feeling alienated, rejected, or rebellious, the teenagers felt cared for and useful.


Mastery does not mean winning or being perfect. It means learning one’s capabilities and focusing on accomplishments. Such positive experiences encourage children to continue with a job and to complete a task to the best of their ability. Unfortunately, many schools and parents focus on what a child has not done. For instance, school work is sent back highlighting mistakes in red, often failing to acknowledge what the child has done correctly. Such a response discourages a child from pursuing mastery or further accomplishment. Brokenleg cautions, though, that parents should only congratulate for “real” accomplishments.


Independence means taking responsibility for one’s actions. Dr Brokenleg says that children must learn to make choices and to accept the consequences of those choices.


The central goal in Native American child-rearing is to the teach the importance of being generous and unselfish. In the words of a Lakota Elder, “You should be able to give away your most cherished possession without your heart beating faster.” In helping others, youth create their own proof of worthiness: they make a positive contribution to another human life.

Dr Brokenleg’s presentation was inspiring and concerning at the same time. Concerning because, although based on a positive view of human beings and not complicated, it was obvious that modern western ways of parenting and educating are so far removed from what he outlined. However, his approach has much to teach anyone who is either a parent or connected with children in any other capacity.

Most of all, Dr Brokenleg’s presentation confirms that family and connectedness is the foundation of success for all children. Without a feeling of belonging, which is so often the fate of children who are waiting to be adopted, it is hard to move on to a happy and fulfilled adulthood.

Learn more about the Circle of Courage at

Want to read more? Subscribe to Focus on Adoption magazine!