Until we become parents, we don’t comprehend just how deeply and fully we can love another human being. We brought our children into the world, made the conscious choice to share our whole selves with them. We have a responsibility to protect and care for them, to guide them through the world, to support them as they grow into their own people. It’s an often overwhelming responsibility, filled with countless unknowns which we’re forced to cope with in real time.
As author H.P. Lovecraft once said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” In an evolutionary sense, fear is meant to keep us safe. As parents though, fear often emerges when we’re driven to keep those we love most safe. As Lovecraft pointed out, the feeling of fear is an intense one. It often elicits a full-body response, taking hold of our thoughts and our nervous system, refusing to be ignored. Stop, there’s danger, don’t lower your guard, it tells us. At one time, this intensity was central to our survival as a species. It told us to fight and to run, it kept our adrenaline pumping when we didn’t think we had anything left.
But as parents, we cannot let these fears limit what of the world we show to our kids. We can’t close them off from formative experiences or try to insulate them from difficult things that they will have to deal with eventually as teenagers and adults and then as parents themselves one day. We can’t make the same mistakes our parents made. We have to find a way through the fear, to use the fear, in order to guide them on their journey.
That They Scared You Is Not An Excuse
Though life’s dangers aren’t typically as acute as when our fear response developed, our brains haven’t fully gotten the message. When our kids stay out too late, when we find out they’ve been drinking, when they touch something we told them not to touch, that same primal fear takes over. We didn’t know where they were, we didn’t know if they were safe, we didn’t know anything at all. Terror rises up within us like piping-hot lava, often emerging as an eruption of anger. We care about our kids more than anything, and selfishly, stupidly, they put themselves in danger. We put everything we have into keeping them safe, and here they are, tossing that carefully-crafted safety net aside as if it meant nothing at all.
We recall these moments with our own parents, but we never fully understood them until we had children of our own. We didn’t understand their overreactions, and we resented their anger. But now that we’re in their position, mulling over the endless list of horrible possibilities as we anxiously wait for our kids to return home, we understand. Their anger was a product of fear, but that doesn’t make it ok.
We have to understand that our kids are trying to figure out this thing called life…on their own…just like we did. They don’t want to be dependent on us, just as we don’t want them to be dependent on us. It’s just that we don’t know what kind of things they’re running into when they’re out there in the world, and it’s the unknown that is most frightening of all. But that’s an “us” problem, not a “them” problem.
Anger Will Not Protect Them
Anger makes us irrational. As Cato The Elder said, “An angry man opens his mouth and shuts his eyes.” Though we may feel powerful when we lean into anger, it doesn’t give us control. In fact, it’s often anger that controls us. When forming relationships with our kids, when reminding them how much we care, anger isn’t a tool, it’s a detriment. We’re no longer communicating with them, or explaining where they went wrong. At best, we’re unloading our emotions on them in an attempt to get them to listen. At worst, we’re instilling them with a sense of fear.
When that’s the case, their fear isn’t based in the consequences of their potentially-dangerous behavior. Instead, their fear comes from us. They won’t fear staying out past curfew, but they will fear coming home. They won’t fear the consequences of drinking alcohol, but they’ll fear calling us to pick them up, perhaps even forcing them to choose a dangerous situation over trusting us to help. Fear doesn’t give us a free pass to take emotions out on our kids, and if we’re trying to get through to them, anger just might have the opposite effect.
Let Them Struggle and Overcome
We worry that our kids will fail, that they’ll get hurt if they do something dangerous. As much as we’d like to sometimes, we cannot let them live a life without failure, or a life free of danger. These things are not only inevitable, but they’re a fundamental part of life.
Failure is disappointing, but it’s also motivating. It teaches you about what’s important, it guides you, it forces you to work harder. Dangerous situations push our boundaries, they show us that we’re capable of more than we imagined and can endure more than we initially believed. Protecting kids from failure means robbing them of opportunities to learn and grow. Cushioning the world to alleviate our fears means shrinking theirs, stunting them and preventing them from reaching their full potential.
Luctor et emergo — let them struggle and overcome. Don’t let your own fears stop them from climbing the tree, from jumping off the high-dive, from studying abroad. Kids look to us in uncertain situations, using our reactions to shape their own perceptions. Do not let your anxiety infect them, don’t let your nervousness stop them from trying. Explain the difficult thing, be clear about the risks and encourage them to stay safe. You can help them up if they fall, and support them if they fail. But for now, step aside and let them live.
Don’t Give Them Your Fears
When a child enters the world, the sketch of their life and their character begins on a blank slate. They haven’t been conditioned to fear the cars speeding down the road, they have no apprehension about speaking to a room full of strangers. With this lack of anxiety comes something incredible; a curiosity about the world that only grows stronger with each new discovery. The world is like a video game with most of the map untouched, and as they explore, the blurred paths turn crisp and vibrant.
As we watch our kids soaking in their surroundings like an overeager sponge, it’s impossible to ignore the kneejerk reactions we’ve developed through our own exploration. We were once laughed off the stage during a talent show, bit by a dog, injured after falling from a tree. Those are our fears, though. Not our children’s.
The first time Marina Abromvich saw a snake, as most children would, she approached the unusual creature with intense curiosity. She was fascinated by the way it moved, intrigued by the way its scales shined in the sun. When Marina’s grandmother realized what had captured her attention, she shrieked. Her fear was palpable and contagious, and in that moment, Marina’s curiosity vanished. She no longer cared to investigate on her own, as her grandmother’s response shaped a perception she would carry for the rest of her life.
“That was the first moment in my life that I really felt fear,” she later reflected. But her fear didn’t stem from the small reptile moving gracefully across the road. “It was my grandmother’s voice that frightened me. It’s incredible how fear is built into you, by your parents and others surrounding you. You’re so innocent in the beginning; you don’t know.”
It’s almost too easy to transfer our fears to our kids, to allow our perceptions to cloud theirs. It’s often not intentional, but our kids are constantly internalizing our reactions, our body language, our ways of interacting with the world. If they see us respond with fear, they too will develop learned fears. Not because of their own lived experiences, but because of us.
The tragedy of fear is that it presents like a contagious disease, hindering curiosity and crushing potential. Once that disease spreads, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to return to a time before it existed within the minds and hearts of our children. The best, and perhaps only treatment, is prevention. We must do everything in our power to ensure our fears remain ours, and ours only.
There Are More Important Things to Worry About
Every generation experiences a seemingly agreed-upon fear, singling out The Next Big Thing that could prove detrimental to our kids. In Plato’s Phaedrus, the King of Egypt all but rejected the god Theuth’s latest invention, the written word. He feared the repercussions of something he didn’t understand, anticipating that the new development would harm the status quo.
“This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls,” he told the well-intentioned god. “They will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
The King’s knee jerk response sounds familiar, reminiscent of our own parents’ unwelcome response to the music that became the soundtrack to our youth, far different from the bands that existed when they were younger. Music, radios, CD players, TVs, and video games all faced a similar scrutiny at some point in history. The adults of Egypt harbored genuine concern about what reading and writing would do to their children, just as today’s adults fear what screen time will do to ours.
Parents blame excess screen time for their kids’ laziness, for their weight, for their lack of social skills, for their mental health — parents are terrified that screens are destroying the next generation. But are these fears based in reality, or are they as misguided as the King of Egypt’s fear of the written word?
A team of psychologists poured over more than 40 different studies investigating the link between screen time and mental health among young people, specifically targeting depression and anxiety. Their research, published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, pointed to something far less mysterious.
“There doesn’t seem to be any evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues,” said lead researcher Candice L. Odgers. “We’re all looking in the wrong direction…The real threat isn’t smartphones. It’s this campaign of misinformation and the generation of fear among parents and educators.”
Like it or not, we will never return to a time before smartphones, a time before screens became an ever-present force and the dominant cultural medium. The research may be disappointing, to a degree. Parents no longer have a boogyman to blame, something to point to as the source of everything wrong in their kids’ lives. There is no scapegoat. The good news, however, comes from the same hard truth. The impact screens have on our kids is something we can directly combat with things within our control.
Instead of panicking and pointing fingers, let’s focus on taking an active role in our kids’ lives. Spend time with them, even if you use screens to do it. Help them eat better, even if they occasionally do so in front of the TV. Let them engage in activities that spark joy and curiosity, instead of expressing disdain for the very thing that sparks it. Meet them at their level, and help them adjust to the cultural shifts instead of trying to fight them.
We have a tendency to misplace fears, to waste energy worrying about things we can’t control instead of embracing the things within our control. These fears, and the impact these fears have on our children, can impact them negatively for the rest of their lives. Fear is natural and often inevitable, but like our knee jerk reaction to our childrens’ affinity for video games, we can control how we respond to it. When the alternative is limiting our kids’ potential by shrinking their world and crushing their curiosity, we simply have to try.
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