His tiny feet lifted up as a hand grabbed one of the metal bars alongside. He pulled himself up one, then another, then…froze.
Our little guy, all 40 pounds of him, a kid who has leapt before he looked more times than I’d truly like to count, suddenly froze. “I can’t do it. I’m scared,” he said.
At first, I thought he was playing a game, joking. A few moments later, I realized he was serious…and nervous.
He wasn’t far off the ground at all. Nothing more so than usual. In fact, we’d seen him tackle much taller heights, sometimes to our chagrin, without a single thought. But suddenly, three steps up to the next level of this playground while we visited friends out of town, was causing him to freeze with fear.
Was it because it was unfamiliar territory? How could this be? What was going on?
I was perplexed.
Then he suddenly started doing the same thing back at home, on the playground set at my parents’ house which he had used time and time again. Up the ladder, down the slide, up the ladder, down the slide. It was as routine to his day as eating breakfast, but suddenly there was the same frozen fear that left him clinging to the four or five foot ladder and asking for help going up or going down.
Where did this come from? Was it a learned fear? And if so, were we to blame?
I know I’m a worrier. I feel as though I’ve gotten better at it as he grows, but I admit, I’m usually the first to say “be careful!” or “I don’t want you getting hurt!” or something else equally concerned. Immediately, that worry then culminated in worry that I had somehow crippled our son from this activity he loves with a past barrage of warnings.
Even as I write that, I see my mind has made my blame more melodramatic than it is. It’s not entirely out of the question, though, as Psychology Today notes in this 2012 article:
“If a parent is obviously anxious, the child will become anxious. If a parent seems calm, this will help the child to calm down. One of the key ways that a parent can help a child to reduce their anxiety is by managing the parent’s own anxiety.”
Luckily, when these incidents happened, we did, what seems to be the right thing. While we at first mentioned that he’s never been scared before, we didn’t dismiss his response of “But I am now,” instead asking him why he’s scared.
That same article from Psychology Today: “Many times a parent will say “You’re not scared,” to their child. The goal is to reduce the child’s anxiety but often what it does is invalidate what the child is feeling. If you were about to do something anxiety-provoking and someone told you what you were feeling, it would not be helpful. In fact, it might be frustrating. For a child, it conveys to the child that the child does not know what they are feeling and can also make the child feel that the parent does not understand. Instead, validate the child’s experience but also encourage the child to remain in the situation. “Are you scared?”
For us, that validation came in telling him it’s all right, that no one will make him go up and down the ladder and slide, and if he’d like to not use the slide, he doesn’t have to. So this went on for about two weeks. Then, suddenly, it was as if nothing had happened. Suddenly, he was back up on the ladder, asking us to join him, and that was that.
What caused him to change back? I have no idea. And some internet sleuthing didn’t turn up much to explain the no fear-fear-no fear change at such a quick turn at this just-shy-of-four phase of life. A lot out there on the development of fear, but little I could find at this writing about the back and forth switch.
Regardless, it’s okay, and I’m glad we’re back to a point that embraces his love of adventure and “the new.” I’m okay that it didn’t turn out that I had scarred him for life through my own worries. In fact, if anything, this little dip in and out of the fear pool has been good, for me at least, to offer me this little step out of the moment and realize maybe there’s a balance between protection, cautiousness and insulation and fear. He won’t be running out into the street anytime soon (especially the way some people drive down our street), but maybe the backyard and the playground can be a little more exploratory than dad’s kept it from being.
When you were a kid, did you ever write a letter to a celebrity? Obviously, I’m talking in the days before the internet, email, etc.
I have fond memories as a kid of (somehow) getting hold of some celebrity addresses and writing letters to Frank Gorshin, the actor/stand-up comedian known to many as The Riddler on the 1960s Batman TV show. This was during a time long before superheroes were a mainstay at movie theatres, but Batman reruns were a fun treat every afternoon in the 80s. To my delight, Mr Gorshin wrote back a few times, including two glossy photos (one as himself, one as The Riddler), with messages to me written on them. I remember just how over the moon I was when an envelope would arrive with the return address “Gorshin” on it.
I should note that my brother had a similar experience when an envelope labeled “Romero” showed up after his writing to another Batman classic baddie – Cesar Romero.
There is something almost magical about receiving mail as a kid. Heck, there’s something almost magical about receiving mail as an adult when it’s not bills and junk mail. I still get excited when a new copy of Archie comics or Saturday Evening Post shows up in my mailbox. But it’s still no match for the level of excitement my son gets when a birthday or holiday card or his book of the month from the Imagination Library shows up, grinning ear to ear that someone took the time to send him, yes him – this almost 4 year old boy, something. Something that through the magic of the U.S. Postal Service left one location, went into a big blue box, and found its way across the country, to his very house.
It’s humbling and yet grand all at the same time. And for a child, it’s wondrous.
So, when my wife and I recently saw online that there is an address for children to write to their favorite Disney character (via the Disney Communications Department), we asked the little guy if he’d like to write a letter to his favorite Disney character. “Of course!” he replied exuberantly. So who would it be? Mickey? Donald? Goofy? One of the numerous Disney Princesses?
“Cousin Gus!” he excitedly told us. “I want to write a letter to Cousin Gus! He’s my favorite!”
Yep. Cousin Gus. Cousin Gus who appeared in one Donald Duck short from 1939, aptly titled “Donald’s Cousin Gus,” about Donald’s cousin who shows up for a visit, doesn’t speak a word of dialogue, but eats Donald out of house and home.
And our little guy loves it. He roars with laughter at every antic as Gus maneuvers food away from Donald’s plate and fridge and into his tummy. Naturally, Donald’s temper doesn’t stay under wraps long.
So, with a piece of bright green construction paper, a red crayon, and my hand guiding his, he set out to write a simple, but heartfelt letter to his favorite Disney character. And off in the mail it went, with a little note from mom and dad explaining to whoever answers Gus’ mail our little guy’s affection for even the most obscure of Duck Family members.
Next time we’ll send some food along with it, Gus.