The Gift of Fear

Friday, March 10, 2006

Fear is a powerful thing. I’ve been reading V’s struggle for the last several days and it got me to thinking. What is this fear? Where does it come from? What purpose does it serve?

When you observe babies, you’ll note that up to a certain developmental age, they have no fear. About the age of 7/8 months when enough of their neurons and synapses have connected in their brains, their depth perception kicks in and they realize that all adults are not the bringers of food, they will begin to show signs of fear at new or unexpected things. Even then, the range of reactions from child to child can be wildly different. Some children will startle and then assimilate the new information, and return to what they were doing. For others, the fear can become paralyzing, causing the child to scrabble up the adult’s legs shrieking in terror. Some fears are learned, and others are purely instinctual.

For the child and adult, a decision is reached in this moment. How will the adult model to the child how to cope with fear? Will the child respond? Will the modeled behavior make the fear worse? In my experience, the way adults model the coping response is based primarily on their own parents’ model. This is blended with the adults’ own mental health and awareness of their own feelings and emotions.

Children reach stages where their fears loom large over their lives. If you have a child such as mine, complex rituals will be developed to avoid certain items or places. {Don’t even try to get a child who is terrified of moving toys into Rainforest Café.} As these children mature, their sense of self equalizes and they develop their own coping skills for fears. Their rationalization skills kick up a notch and you can talk them through many of the fears. That is about age six for most kids.

So why? Why do we have these fears that linger in the backs of our consciousness? Why do some of these fears ramp up when we become parents?

Protecting our children is a chemical reaction in the brain. A purely instinctual response as our brains flood with hormones. We are hard wired to respond this way. It is how we have survived through the ages.

The harder thing, the learned response, is the balance between our physical response and our consciousness of danger.

Going back to children I have watched throughout my career, I noticed a distinct pattern. Children need to experience pain and disappointment in order to grow as humans. Children who never tumble, never fall, can’t learn their bodies responses to these signals. They never learn to listen to their bodies, so they either ignore them completely or misread their cues. That kid who jumped off the top of the slide and was surprised when he broke his arm? That’s one of those kids. The kid who hopped into the car of the predator? That was one of those kids too.

In one sense, parents have facilitated this disconnect with reactions and emotions. Children are constantly told they can’t do something because it isn’t “safe”. I call those types of teachers the “Safety Nazi’s”. Children – ESPECIALLY BOYS! – will challenge these types to the ground, cause they want to test their bodies in a variety of ways. Children are experiential creatures. If it hasn’t happened to them, through their senses, then it doesn’t exist. The continual hue of “You’ll hurt yourself” is deadened when I sneak behind your back and I Don’t hurt myself. Now you’re just a crazy adult talking out of your ass.

As a teacher, I would offer my opinion in a manner that expressed my concerns, but still let them decide. I mean, obviously if they were juggling chainsaws, I would have put a stop to it, but the non-lethal stuff? I let them experience it. When they would cry and come to me after for hugs and compassion, I would offer it but add “I was concerned that you might get hurt if you chose to continue playing this game”. This way, I transmitted that I had seen it coming, but still trusted them to at least try to make the decision, and was right there for support and clean up after the fact.

When young children aren’t given the space to experiment with their judgment, they never develop the “ear” for it later.

When young children are told to ignore their instincts, they deaden to them and stop listening for the signs our bodies give us to tell us we are in danger.

When young children are told to smile and be nice to strangers who scare them, they learn that even if they don’t trust this person they have to be nice to them.

When young children are told to stop crying, it doesn’t hurt, they learn that their emotions and feelings aren’t valued and to stuff them so they don’t bother other people.
(Big shout out to the beginning of most eating disorders right there!)

We can’t protect our children from everything. Besides, they already know if mommy and daddy fight, or if you are worried about money, or if Gramma is dying. They tell the preschool teachers everything, believe me.

All we can do is to help them develop their inner voice. The one that we listen to when you don’t get in that car with your drunk friends, or don’t go into that dorm room alone with that frat brother, or pass up the heroin, or to get the hell out of the abusive relationship.

The most we can hope is that our fingerprints, our whispered reminders of good decisions, our unconditional acceptance of them after they have made poor choices will ring louder than the desire to fit in or be popular.

20 Baleful Regards:

Sarah said...

Dawn-I haven't commented for a while-I loved this post-you're a wonderful writer and very insightful.
I hope both my children's "inner voices" are very, very LOUD.

Trabinski said...

What a great post! I was just chatting with my parents about the issue of wondering "What is the deciding factor between kids who continually make poor choices and kids who have that abiity to listen to their gut at an early age?" (and their gut points them in a positive direction). I have a cousin who is in his mid twenties who had a pretty rough life growing up and he's not doing well right now. Even said he thinks he's at rock bottom. :| Frightening words to hear from anyone, but especially someone you care about. Then I read Bobita's posting yesterday about her life growing up, where most of her family members are right now, and how she's been able to overcome the odds (and triumph magnificently I might add!). So, I'm on a mission not only for my own kids, but for as many as possible - to help surround kids with people who love them, respect them, and are always rooting for them with profound support. I don't know what else we can do.

So thanks Dawn for your thoughts today. Also, thanks for stopping by my first posting ever and welcoming me!!

Anonymous said...

Oh, man, we do that all the time. Tell our little one to be polite and speak to someone he'd rather not.

I am now appropriately freaked out.

What's the line between teaching a child to be polite and teaching them to be safe?

Mommygoth said...

It makes me feel better about the world to know you're a teacher. We need you guys to help us teach our kids these lessons - not because it's your job, per se, but because sometimes even when they won't listen to us, they'll listen to you. Great post - I think you're dead on with this stuff.

IzzyMom said...

I'm no expert on anything but your take instinctually feels right to me. I try to let my daughter experience life, within the parameters of reason and logic, in her own way, without trying to restrain or inhibit excessively because she "might" hurt herself or because I know better. Of course I do know better but I also believe that she has to learn some things for herself, for her own good.

Mignon said...

Yes, I was thinking what mommygoth said. You are a value to your students and their families. You've given me a lot to think about.

My daughter is naturally very cautious, and I'm always encouraging to take more risks (within reason), but I worry that I'm overriding her instincts. I would never want to do that, but I also want her to be able to experience the cause/effect that you describe in a safe environment.

Dawn said...

Contrary -It is a fine line - the social stuff. What I have always done for Emily is to place myself in front and introduce her without making her move from behind me. For some adults, she moves right out and does her cute dance of greeting. way. I don't apologize for her or say "she's shy"...cause she isn't. Something is giving her pause. I have to respect that.

I have also done lots of processing after with all the children I have worked know.. "Did that feel scary when you fell? Were you suprised when that ball hit you? Did that crash startle you?" I try to be really specific about nuances of fear. Emotions are more than mad/sad/glad...and kids know it.They want to name them and we need to help them find the word.

Mignon- You're giving your daughter the safe base from which to launch. That is all she needs.

And Mommygoth- thanks. I do miss the actual teaching on many days, but I hope that I am doing my part by furthering research and training the new teachers. Our children need authentic, real adults who view them as people, not little adults or memorization machines.

Sugarmama said...

Great post, Dawn. This reminds me of the rules on my daughter's school playground. No chase games allowed. No playing with sticks from the trees that drop them over the fence. No dodgeball anymore. That sort of stuff. I'm sure everyone means well and don't want the kids to get hurt (and don't want some kind of lawsuit on their hands!) But it seems a little too much to me.

As for talking to strangers, my daughter is extremely outgoing and, like her father (my Ex) will talk to anyone on the street. ANYONE. So when we go out, I'm constantly struggling with trying to get her not to talk to everyone we come across and also teaching her to be polite and respond to others when they say something to you.

Complicating things is my ingrained PC'ness that makes me worry about being racist or classist if I'm nervous about my daughter talking to someone who gives me the willies but who also happens to be black or brown or stinky.

Anonymous said...

So when do you start your new program? You need to get this stuff published.

Anonymous said...

I'm with TB, Dawn -- when do you publish? I love the way you talk about this stuff. It's not just that your dead-on in your observations, but that you describe it in such a judgement-free way and in a way that makes it easy for everyone to understand and assimilate.

I have learned with Rosie to step back a little bit and let her discover for herself the consequences of her actions, even if they might result in a small bit of discomfort. It makes sense with her, anyway, because she's the rebel that will do the opposite of what I tell her. It's hard sometimes to let them go when you know they might hurt themselves, but you're right: that's the way they can learn, the way for them to understand how to make their own decisions.

Anonymous said...

Gavin DeBecker wrote a great book called "The Gift of Fear." It's about how we all have that little voice in our heads that tells when when something about a person just isn't right. Of course, our small kids can't read this book; but us grown-ups can.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Dawn. As others have voiced, you bring up some valid and thought-provoking points.

The book that Anonymous mentioned, 'The Gift Of Fear' is a good read. I saw him on Oprah (yes, I LOVE Oprah) a few years ago and he expounded on some of the points you touch on here, emphasizing how we, as humans are taught to ignore our instincts. He stressed how animals use these instincts, or 'gut feelings' to their advantage and how we could benefit from learning to be more in touch with these same feelings.

Julie Marsh said...

I've read both "The Gift of Fear" and "Protecting the Gift" - both by Gavin de Becker, and they are extremely insightful. "Protecting the Gift" is all about how to keep children safe - both how we as parents can help keep them safe and how we can teach them to keep themselves safe.

Wonderful post, Dawn. As usual. And you are right on about how perceptive kids are (and the conclusions tjey draw).

Anonymous said...

SERIOUSLY. Dawn, if you haven't already, you need to write a book. I learn more from reading your posts that relate to early childhood development than I've ever learned from one of those so-called "Parenting Books."

Thanks for all the amazing insight.

Anonymous said...

I try to remember when all my fears came - I guess it's when you realize the consequences... I imagine it's our job to show our kids the consequences of that which is TRULY scary (getting in cars with strangers). As for the other stuff, I hope to allow her to not be afraid of failure - I think that's what much of our other life fears come from.

mamatulip said...

I've read this a couple of times and it is a fabulous post. Thank you.

Dawn said...

Hey all...Guess what I went out and bought today? That's right "The Gift of Fear"... I've never read it before and I am excited to crack it open. Thanks for letting me know it was out there!

V said...

Yeah, this is the one place where I can find some comfort...the place in the background, watching...advising her, but not stunting her growth (though of course sometimes I have to nail my lips shut to just WATCH). But she's still young enough that I'm almost always there getting to watch, to be there in a flash if anything goes awry. When she gets that's going to be send her out on her own, just hoping that she learned enough.
I love your focus on intuition, Dawn. LOVE IT. Because sometimes, it's all we've got. I've written many a page on it also. :)
Oh...and (blahblahblah) I'm so happy you don't tell people that Emily is shy when she's feeling more reticent. My parents would ALWAYS tell people that I was I BECAME shy and its taken so long to even begin to shed that.

halloweenlover said...

Great post, Dawn.

What is the best thing to do when a kid falls? My mom used to tell me that I was fine and brush me off, so that'd be my natural instinct. What would be better?

I need to bookmark all these great parenting ones!

Imez said...

I just wanted to say that I haven't read an informative non-preachy/screechy blog in....ever. So thank you. That felt right.

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