Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Only Thing We Have To Fear...

I've made mention before on this blog our observation that children do not develop linearly. That is, it is not the case that children today are just like they were yesterday, only a little more so; rather, they can be very very different from one day to the next. One day a parent thinks he or she has the little one figured out; but by the next, the kid has developed a new talent, or skill, or fear, or neurosis, or obsession, that completely changes the dynamic of the household. The parent is left thinking, where did this come from? I have previously described it as if a switch has just been thrown in the child's brain. Some feature was off yesterday, and it's been turned on today. Yesterday, the infant could only crawl; today, he's toddling about as fast as his stubby little legs can carry him. Yesterday, the child could only look at the pretty pictures; today, she's putting the letters together into words and reading a book for the first time.

Yesterday, the kid was perfectly normal. Today, she's scared of her shadow. And she's scared of what's around the corner in the hallway. And she's scared that a tornado will come. And she's in deathly terror of the very concept of pimples.

That's right, our Pillowfight Fairy--lovely five-year-old girl with a hyperactive imagination--had the Dark Foreboding switch thrown in her brain sometime in the last week. And the Dark Foreboding switch is right next to the Abject Terror switch, which sometimes gets tripped by accident.

What happened? Mommy and I aren't really sure. It's not any one thing, that's for sure. We think it's partly the fact that her abstract imagination is maturing, and that she is now capable of imagining really bad things that she couldn't before. It could also be the fact that we've seen a whole bunch of videos lately to which she's not accustomed (see previous post for a partial list), many of which had some pretty scary scenes. She's also taken to reading through our set of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which she absolutely loves--but which has much humor related to concepts like hungry monsters under the bed and transmogrification and sentient dinner-table food (which doesn't particularly want to be eaten), all of which could potentially be planting some weird seeds in that fertile imagination of hers.

So, of what kinds of things is she afraid?

As I mentioned above, she's afraid of whatever's around the corner in our hallway, and in rooms with closed doors and lights off. After all, there might be something there waiting to jump out and get you. For this reason, it's always best to have someone else go around the corner first--usually Mommy or Daddy, but Little Sister will do in a pinch. After all, if something's there, better to have it take someone else first. At any rate, Daddy usually doesn't have much sympathy for these fears, and Mommy (believe it or not) has much, much less. When she balks at heading back there, we typically tell her, "Oh, pish" (or some other synonymous phrase) and just send her back despite her whining. We operate on the theory that the best way to beat these fears is just to have her get over it--that to do otherwise would be to nurture the fears, to legitimize them. Besides, maybe this is nature's way of teaching little children the virtue of Courage.

(Thinking back to my own childhood, I don't think "fear of what's in there" is all that uncommon. I remember that my younger brother was afraid of being in a room where the toilet was being flushed. My older brother and I--cruel as only older brothers can be--figured out the pattern: he would use the loo, then go wash his hands, then open the door; then he would gingerly tiptoe over to the potty and flushandrunforthedoorforallhewasworth. Then, my older brother (who was hiding behind the door) would push it shut and hold it while my younger brother, trapped in the bathroom with that swirling maelstrom of sanitary terror, would seriously freak out. Good times, good times.)

She's also seen a couple of videos lately that has had tornadoes in them. Interestingly, both of them were recent VeggieTales videos, The Wonderful Wizard of Ha's and Moe & the Big Exit. The former of these tells the story of the Prodigal Son in a spoof of the Wizard of Oz, so of course there's a tornado in there (and some tornado humor as well. Although I must say, they absolutely nailed the green-looking sky that occurs just as it's time to head to the shelter. Having spent some of my formative years in various plains states, their depiction of the sky raised the hairs on the back of my neck). The latter video is a retelling of the story of Moses and the Exodus, as a Western. And one of the plagues was a tornado that ripped through the dusty little town ("Dodge-Ball City") and messed up all the store fronts.

(Side note, apropos of nothing: while I realize the seriousness and tragedy of the plagues of Egypt, I'm not immune to noticing that there's a rich vein of humor to be mined in them as well:
"And then Moses stretched out his staff over the river, and the Lord sent forth great swarms of Hippos all over the land. And they were in their houses, and in their kitchens, and in their bedchambers... and everything that the locusts had left, the Hippos smashed flat..."
And the Lord stretched out his hand toward the Land of Egypt, and... gave everybody a wedgie. From the least of them to the greatest, there was none who was spared, from Pharaoh in his palace to the maidservant grinding at the wheel. And a great cry arose over the land--more like a series of loud yelps, actually."
So think of it! What other plagues could the Lord do, should he desire seriously to humiliate someone? Anyway, back to our regularly scheduled blog post.)

So anyway, we had to explain to the Fairy what a tornado was, and what it could do. As we were describing their power, that they can flatten houses (and occasionally do), she began to get really really scared. We then had to explain that California gets mercifully few tornadoes, and that she really doesn't have to worry about them. We don't think she fully believed our reassurances, though. So I had to pull up a color-coded map online showing tornado frequency by state. See? There are nearly no tornadoes in California in any given year. You're safe.

But then there was the one that has Tonya and me scratching our heads. In place of the Plague of Boils (or sores) in the story of the Exodus, Moe & the Big Exit gives a plague of pimples. That's right, there's a scene in there where the zucchini mayor of Dodge-Ball City looks in his mirror, and little purple pimples suddenly break out all over his face! I thought it was mildly funny. The Fairy thought it was terrifying, and was deathly afraid that the pimples would soon be coming and breaking out all over her face as well!

Hmmm.... this one was a little harder to handle, believe it or not. Only part of that was because we were having difficulty maintaining straight faces while we calmed her fears. The trouble is that, well... pimples are just a fact of life. Our girls are too young to get them now, of course, but given a half-dozen more years or so, they're going to have to deal with them. But try explaining that to a little girl who somehow got the notion into her head that they're the second coming of the Black Death! (Not that she knows anything about the Black Death yet. And we're going to hold off on telling her about that one for a few years yet.)

So yes, little deary, pimples are a fact of life. I had them, your mother had them, you will probably have them too as a teenager, like nearly every other teenager out there. They're just little sores, and they go away after a couple of weeks. And there are some medications out there that can help with them if necessary. They're not dangerous, they're not scary; they're just a little annoying.

To be fair, I have some memories of being seriously freaked out by an episode of Star Trek (original series, of course), when I was not much older than she is now. The episode had these strange energy-based alien lifeforms that would possess the bodies of people, make their faces glow with unnatural colored light, and cause them to make strange noises. I was terrified by the episode. I suspect that seeing those pimples suddenly break out on the Mayor's face had a similarly terrifying effect on the Fairy, for the same reasons.


Ah, well. Tonya and I now find ourselves continually wondering what will strike fear into the Fairy's heart next. And we find ourselves wondering how to deal with it. I think the idea that this is nature's way of teaching kids courage probably has some merit. But since the Fairy is our oldest kid, we haven't dealt with this phenomenon before and we're playing it by ear. Do we have any readers out there who have some similar experiences with their kids? How did you deal with it? What worked? What didn't? We'd love to hear from you.


timeless said...

Ah Tim...your story about young brother and toilets really rang a terrifying bell! I was morbidly afraid of the INSIDES...those mysterious WORKING parts of the inside of a toilet TANK! Once when the toilet sort of went bonkers (kept running? overflowed?), I remember running out of the bathroom screaming my head off! I hate to say that it was probably well into teenage/young adult years when I actually had the nerve to remove the tank lid and peer inside.
I also have vivid memories of Frankinstein-esque nightmares, and "seeing" dark-robed beings with tall spears or sticks coming down the back alley toward our house. I probably was reading too many scarey (scary?) comic books! Or heard too many wonderfully vivid radio fairy tales from "Let's Pretend". (ask your mom and dad about those!) Halloween time could produce an extraordinary amount of these radio tales. So...what your little one is experiencing is NORMAL, especially since she also has been blessed with a vivid imagination. And Tonya's and your responses are pretty much "right-on".

The longer you are a father, the more you will see that trying to predict or even anticipate those childhood fears is futile...instead you just go with the flow, and try to be imaginative in explaining and reassuring. I didn't have that luxury...I didn't have that sort of "attentiveness", so I kept all those fears locked up. But, eventually children will face those fears and as a result, courage is acquired. I think that's why I love the film, "Monsters Inc." We can't shield our kids from the external influences that can spark fear - I grew up in a relatively benign period of TV, none of the "street reality" kids see today...but to this day, I have a morbid fear of earthquakes! At the age of 7 or so, being without any knowledge of what they were, I was rudely awakened at 5am, and seeing my father trying to navigate down the hall to get me and my brother as the house shook and heaved a good 6-8 feet back and forth - I thought it was the end of the world! For a good month, I couldn't eat hardly anything...I lost weight. Sometimes, we take our fears into adulthood.
Those were also the times when I thought that if the world ended and I had done ONE bad thing that day, I was forever doomed to hell! Yes, even Bible stories and innocent prayers ("...if I should die before I wake...") can instill horrendous fears in a child. Praise God that His grace and love are openly, and gently, taught today to our children! (I also had a morbid fear of water due to the fact that my father's "profound religious attitudes" prevented me from learning how to swim since he forbade me from going swimming if boys were there! I didn't learn to swim until I was a teenager!)

So...don't worry if it takes a while to get to the root of your kids' fears...your presence and demeanor will help them face all the boogymen in their lives...and they WILL pop up from time to time, and soon enough they will learn to trust themselves to overcome all of them! But those fears are just have to validate them and tell the kids that they're normal things that happen as kids grow up, and that YOU are there for them to learn courage.

Oh yes, I also remember being around 12-13 and being awakened many early mornings with the rattling of windows - "they" were exploding atomic bombs in Nevada! But my first initial reactions were the fears I had of earthquakes. I soon got used to it, but certainly not the potential WWIII fears. We were in the middle of the "Cold War"! I certainly recall as an adult when I nearly dissolved into hysteria during the Cuban Missle Crisis!!

Kids...and adults...all have fears, especially about the "unknown" and things they have no control a flushing toilet!

Wow...this is like my own blog!

timeless said...

PS - I almost forgot the most important thing...KEEP IT SIMPLE when trying to help during little Fairy's fearful times, and try to avoid over-analyzing things. Kids don't need a lot of words.