I’m terrified of bushes. Just the sight of a hedge makes me flit around, looking over my shoulder. Well maybe not so much anymore, but bushes, hedges and pine trees used to scare the leg warmers off me. Every time I passed one, on the other side of the road, of course, I shrunk up my body and got past the threatening landscape feature as fast as I could.
I can thank my mom for the fear of bushes. She always told me that the bushes were where bad people hid and one could jump out at me at any time. Walking around my manicured suburban neighborhood was hell.
Big dogs were the second threat. That fear came from Mom too, but it made more sense. We had a duck when I was a toddler, and when I was four, we came home to find Donald all bloody at the bottom of our yard. Neighbors told us that three big dogs attacked him. We rushed Donald to the animal hospital, but there was nothing they could do. Since then, my mom told me to stay away from big dogs, invoking my memory of the bloody duck every time.
In my neighborhood, avoiding big dogs was no small task, because nobody leashed them. Dogs ran free all day and night and if I came upon one, I froze up and hoped he’d walk right by. Most did, but there was one serial German-Shepherd-owning-family who must have abused their dogs because when you walked by their house, their dog would come barreling out of their yard, barking and growling, but if you raised your hand up to it, it’d back down and cower, whimpering.
As I got older, I realized how my mom had passed her fears on to me. I vowed not to impose my fears on to my children. So much for intentions. I’m not afraid of anything in particular, well, maybe flying a little, since the newspaper I worked for covered a crash in gory detail. And scuba diving. I’m perfectly happy to snorkel. My fears haven’t really come up, but my husband has inadvertently planted the seeds of fear in our daughter, Rose.
With good intentions, while Rose was on the deck snacking, he’d tell her to finish up her food before the birds got it. Well, that little strategy backfired in a big way when we took her to Hawaii. The hotel had continental breakfast outside and there were these aggressive little sparrows all over the place. Through years of being fed, they’d lost their fear of humans and they’d light right next to us, on the table or on the empty chair. Rose freaked out so much that Matt had to eat all of his breakfast with her shaking on his lap.
The same thing happened with spiders. Matt hates spiders. We have a huge population of benign spiders on the deck and in our yard. Having watched her father break up a spider web and jump when pieces of it hit his arm, she will not walk down the stairs if there’s a spider web on the railing.
But the worst cultivar of fear comes from real concerns for the kids’ safety. I don’t think we know where to set our boundaries when we tell Rose, for example, to stay away from the wall outlets. We say “No plugs!” pure and simple, but then she asks, “Why?” What do we do at this juncture? Somewhere along the line of repeat offenses, we’ve gone from “You can get hurt,” to “You’ll get electrocuted and die and never see Mommy or Daddy again.” That’s a little much for a three-year-old. She doesn’t even understand death. Almost all of her princess stories feature a temporary, magical death that can be cured through a princely kiss. So not only are we telling her too much, we’re wasting our time because she doesn’t even understand our warnings.
Outlet danger isn’t the only thing we embellish. Whenever Rose doesn’t want to sit in her car seat, or she doesn’t want to buckle, we tell her that if she doesn’t do it, the police will come and take Mommy and Daddy away. I’m pretty sure we would just get a ticket. Sometimes we switch it up and tell her that we could have an accident and it could break her head open. Ahh, good times.
So how does a three-year-old deal with all of the fears we’ve imposed on her? It’s the little things that seem to affect her the most. Whenever she sees a bird, she shouts, “SHOO! SHOO!” waving her hands, even if that bird is outside the car (or the house) and she’s inside. She used to refuse to get out of the car with birds around but she’s seen them fly away enough times that she’ll capitulate, but not without some trepidation. As for spiders? She’s still afraid of them.
Although birds and spiders are ubiquitous and avoiding them can make life inconvenient, the fears that I worry about most are the disaster scenarios we plant in her head. She may not understand them now, but we’re sowing the seeds when she’s very young. What if she grows up afraid of electricity? What if Rose winds up living off the grid on some Montana compound with the other members of the militia? I’m willing to accept the car thing. Cars are dangerous, and if scaring the bejeezus out of her makes her wear a seat belt and never drive drunk or text, I’ll step up the fear-mongering and show her slide shows of bad accidents.
But the car thing could backfire too. I’ve heard stories where kids get mad at their parents and unbuckle themselves to get them arrested. I can totally see Rose doing that. She’s a spiteful kid. She takes after me.
But spiting us in the car isn’t the worst thing that could happen. She could grow up afraid, and I don’t want that. I still get nervous around big dogs, unless I know them, all because of something that happened when I was four years old.
Even beyond dogs and bushes, the house I grew up in was full of fear. On our back door, we had the doorknob lock, a deadbolt that opened with a key on both sides, a top door lock and a bottom door lock, and bars on the window. People would often get tired of waiting around for us and leave our doorstep before we could open all four locks. We lived in a safe, affluent suburban neighborhood whose worst brush with crime was eggings on Halloween.
My dad is has always been afraid of people knowing him. He never looks anybody in the eye, and he never shares anything of himself. His job sent him to assertiveness training once, and he told me that the students were telling stories from their own lives, and “What do I need that for?”
My mom was always afraid of imminent death. Whenever the radio announced a drop in winter temperatures, she would shriek, “It’s gonna ICEUP! It’s gonna ICEUP! Did you hear that? It’s gonna ICEUP!” Everyone in the house would assure her that yes, we had heard it, and we would wear good boots and take extra precautions. Once we left, she’d sit by the phone waiting for an ominous call telling her we’d been killed or maimed.
I didn’t inherit the break-in paranoia; nor do I worry about sharing my inner self (see this and every other post). I do kind of freak out over ice, though, as everyone should. I don’t go out if I don’t have to and if I do, I drive very slowly and keep an eye out for hazards. But I don’t know how I dodged the bullet. I’m not sure I did. After all, I invent disaster scenarios to scare my three-year-old into compliance with safety precautions.
I am sure that I don’t want to pass my fears along to my children. So what do I do? For one thing, I’ll try to tone down regaling the dire consequences of using electricity and riding in a car. But the truth is, unlike a break-in at my parents’ house, bad things could really happen, and some warnings make us more aware of our own safety. So where’s the middle ground? I guess what I need to do is find that place that’s convincing enough to motivate safety precautions, but not terrifying enough to invoke nightmares. I’m not sure where that is. Do you?