Fear and Learning in Rhode Island

I am parent to a fearful child and also an immeasurably brave one, and they are one and the same.

Girl Powers is careful, cautious, deliberate, skeptical and very often fearful. She has been this way since the first signs of stranger anxiety showed up at around five months old. She is socially selective, opening up right away with some people and keeping her distance from others indefinitely. She has been plagued by the traditional fears of toddlerhood, like Santa Claus, and also a hugely diverse array of imaginary demons: jellyfish, mosquitoes, driving through tunnels (including freeway underpasses), and the electric hand dryers you find in public restrooms.

Movies and TV shows meant for a much younger audience still hold the potential for utterly terrifying moments (Man in the Yellow Hat gets a bandage on his hand in an episode of Curious George = shower scene from Psycho) and on her third birthday we had to leave an auditorium full of bouncing clapping one- and two-year-olds about 90 seconds into Sesame Street Live! – never to return – for fear that Oscar the Grouch might pop out of the can onstage.

Like everything else we know about our kids, this is neither good nor bad; it is simply what is.

As she sheds the pudgy skin of babyhood and steps into a world of increased independence I see some fears fading into memory like her sweet mispronunciations and so many pairs of outgrown shoes. Others linger and still new ones surface; we’re getting lots of questions and discussions about death lately. It doesn’t always make sense to our adult sensibilities either; at the beach last week she had no problem holding a crab in her hand and yet screamed for help when a piece of seaweed floated nearby.

Sometimes I catch myself assuming she will be afraid of something, only to discover she’s totally not. Ride on the carousel without a grown-up? No problem. Make it down the aisle as flower girl? Cake walk. Stand up for herself when an older kid starts to bully? Like it’s her job. Shame on me for assuming.

I don’t know what the experts say on this; I haven’t crawled out from under the laundry piles enough recently to look it up. My gut tells me that the experience of fear – being able to recognize it, talk about it, share it with someone you trust and ask their help navigating it – has to be developmentally significant. It’s an inescapable part of the human experience, fear. I don’t want to minimize hers, nor do I want to completely insulate her from feeling those feelings. I want to equip her with the ability to acknowledge, to communicate, to seek support and, ultimately, to prevail over fear, but I don’t want to shield her from it altogether.

And on the other hand there is a parent’s profound urge to protect, which I tend to do by explaining, intellectualizing…rattlesnakes live way out in the desert, not where we are…most people don’t die until they’re really really old and that’s a long time from now…the life-sized Grover in the blue cape dancing around the stage is actually just a normal guy in a costume. I don’t know about this approach; after all, there are just some things that are scary and which can’t be neatly explained away, and sometimes it all feels a little dismissive.

And on yet another front sometimes you just want to say DUDE. Get over it. A fly buzzing around your cupcake does not signal the end of the world. Except maybe when you’re three sometimes it does, and now we’re back where I don’t know how to let her be afraid without abandoning her in her fear while also not losing my mind.

On our last day of vacation we stopped at McDonald’s to use the bathroom and get lunch on the way to the airport. After we washed our hands I made a mental note that the only hand-drying option was the electric dryer, a long-standing fear. Something made me pause to watch what Girl Powers would do this time, and I saw her look at the contraption (which was still blowing hot air from when I had used it) and take a half-step toward it.

She looked at me and said, half-asking/half-stating, It’s not really really hot air, right? It’s just warm.

Yep, I answered. She put her sweet baby hands out and tested the air for herself, tentatively at first and then rubbed them together as I had. She practically skipped out of the bathroom afterward, saying Mom! When I was two I was scared of those dryers but this time? I’m not scared anymore!

And that was that.


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