Winning Spurs

An astonishing tale of courage at a young age.

I teach as a substitute at my local high school and junior high, and I have a policy in the classroom: I treat my students like young men and women unless they give me a reason to treat them like children. I explain to them that while they’re legally minors (most of them, anyway), for 99.9% of human history at their age they would have families and the young men would be veterans of wars or skirmishes. The point being that these young people are capable of far more than we often give them credit for, if only we raise our expectations of them. My high expectations of these young people are rewarded more often than not.

While running the other day, I was listening to the excellent The Rest Is History podcast, where they discussed the Battle of Crécy in 1346 AD. At Crécy in France, the 16-year-old Prince Edward, son of Kind Edward III, led the vanguard of English forces against a French army triple the English numbers. Though Prince Edward would come to be called The Black Prince and gain a reputation as one of the greatest knights and battlefield commanders history, on this day he was just an unproven teenager.

For those unfamiliar:

At Crécy, south of Calais in northern France, on August 26, 1346, Prince Edward, the eldest son of England’s King Edward III, “won his spurs” in one of the most famous battles – and crushing English victories – of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. When the battle began, an English triumph seemed improbable, as the French heavily outnumbered King Edward’s men. Confident of victory, the French rushed into the fight with thousands of Genoese crossbowmen followed by a great host of mounted knights eager for glory. Yet the English army’s Welsh longbowmen and sturdy men-at-arms cut down their overconfident attackers with a combination of new weapons and tactics that shattered the French army and won a decisive victory.

Prince Edward, leading the English vanguard, was in the thick of the heaviest fighting at the Battle of Crécy. In hand-to-hand combat, he was knocked to his knees and would have been killed or captured had Sir Richard e and Sir Thomas Daniel not come to his rescue. Yet Edward, who later would become known as the “Black Prince,” survived the French onslaught and notably distinguished himself in the fierce fighting. The young prince had just turned 16 and had recently been knighted.

Chuck Lyons at

When the 16-year-old Black Prince was in danger of being overrun, a messenger reached the King calling for aid for the Prince. Learning that the prince was neither dead nor captured, Edward III replied (exact wording varies by source), “Let the boy win his spurs.”

When the king eventually sent 20 knights to assist the Black Prince, the knights found the teenager resting in the shade with his men, having won a decisive victory. He was an unproven teenager no longer, and he’d won his spurs.

The story itself is fascinating, dramatic, and entertaining as a stand-alone tale of history. However, as a father and someone deeply interested in teaching and mentoring my sons, daughter, and students I also love the concept of letting someone struggle and “win their spurs” on their own ability for their ultimate benefit.

Obviously, letting one’s sons engage in battle at 16 (commanding forces no less!) is far more than any modern Western parent is going to allow. However, we should recognize that within the context of history we are outliers and oddballs in how we treat teenagers and early 20-somethings as kids rather than adults. For the vast majority of human history, unforgiving adulthood was thrust upon human beings coincidental with puberty. We moderns are the outliers and the exception to that rule. I am thankful for that, but I wonder if we sometimes don’t go too far to protect our young people and end up infantilizing and weakening them in the process.

If we raise our expectations for our youth, and treat them as young men and women rather than children, they will often surprise us. Moreover, if we sometimes judiciously let them struggle and achieve on their own, their self-esteem and self-image will improve far more than it ever could with us protecting them from failure and leveling all obstacles in their path. I’m not suggesting you put your teenagers in life or death situations, but perhaps look for opportunities within their lives, whether they be toddlers or teens, to allow them to struggle and perhaps even fail. Let them win their spurs. They’ll thank you for it in the long run.

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