Fear and the child.

Two events happened recently that brought into sharp focus the perils that lie in wait for our adolescents these days:

  1.  I was at a running event and an acquaintance was there with his 4-year-old. They both completed the 5 K  run. As I was congratulating the little fellow,  his father laughingly explained that every time his son flagged during the run, he just egged him on by saying that all the girls were watching him! And so the little fellow ran till he finished the run. So yes, it was a funny anecdote and every one laughed. Except me unfortunately. I just closed my eyes and said to myself, why oh why do people not think? This is a four-year old infant in who’s head the thought has now taken root that girls chasing boys is a desirable social norm and that as soon as he can he should partake in this activity!
  2. I was having a conversation with an adolescent at another social gathering and a comment she made struck me like a thunderbolt. The conversation was around teachers and students and how it is so good that there is no fear between them these days. Olden days were cited as “my mother’s time they were so afraid of teachers but today we can say anything to our teachers. Come on, they’re our friends and we even call them by their first names. And they are doing the same things as us, so they absolutely understand us!”  

When an infant comes into this world, it’s very natural instinct is to explore. Infants are naturally very curious about their world, because this is nature’s way of ensuring that homo-sapiens understand their world well and thus have the wherewithal to evolve. Hence as parents we protect our infants from harm as they explore, for they do not know what is dangerous and what is not, and we know that they could get badly hurt due to their lack of experience, fatally so!

Now remember when your infant wanted to explore that cup of hot tea that you were holding in your hand or wanted to grab that lighted candle and touch the flame? What did you do? You stopped your infant from grabbing hot things that could singe or if very hot – hurt badly. You made sure there were no sharp objects in easy reach. You were in protection mode. Just like me. Or maybe, just like me, instead of continually trying to protect my infant and my tea, you too estimated the damage and the experiential learning that such an action would accord your child, and after judging it not too harmful, let your child touch your hot cup of tea once. When I did this, I noticed that my child screamed in pain for about a minute, was very angry with me (I remember some kicking as well) :). But she never went for it again. What had happened you think? I think she was scared. Very scared of the hurt she may feel if she touched my hot cup of tea again!

So yes FEAR. In the modern world it is ANATHEMA to use FEAR to control the child’s reflexes for whatever reason, however noble. Oh woe betide your child grows up with fear inside her. Surely her growth will be stunted, she will be incomplete and so on and so forth. And I agree, one cannot live with fear and should not. But hey, just a minute, then I start thinking, are we throwing the baby out with the bath water, yet again? Is there anyway in which we can use fear to be constructive, positive and build a secure standard for our children growing up?

These are the many questions that besiege me as I parent my teenagers. I am bombarded from all sides with news of teenage sex / pregnancies, deliquescent  rebellion and misleading paths chosen and I tremble in fear for my own children. How can we as parents guide, nay even lead them, securely to adulthood along this path full of metaphorical landmines? As I parent today, in contrast with our parents, who just protected and provided for us (not ‘modern parent’ as we tend to do today), I realize that times have changed and children today are dealing with so much more pressure that a completely connected world has wrought, that our own adolescence seems like (and probably was literally) child’s play in hindsight. I do realize that our growing children need to experiment to learn the ways of this brave new world and that I cannot (and indeed should not) totally protect my children from the “big bad world’. I got that fact as my little girl always wanted to reach for my hot cup of tea “to check it out” and I get it now when I see and hear my teenager talk about her 14-15 year old peers trying out sex / alcohol / cigarettes. I am thinking, yes I understand the importance of “trying out” things and learning from experience as we grow older, but just as we would not dream of letting our four-year old child take the public transport to go to school on her own (no-brainer right?), should we also not be making sure that our adolescents are not trying out “adult” activities that they do not yet have the maturity to control?

And what is the hurry I ask? Human life span is now almost 150 years I hear. We are safer, healthier and have a more comfortable lifestyle than ever before in human evolution history. The world will go nowhere if we were to have some patience. Life is long and the race is apt only for the long distance runner, who can sustain the pace. Racing ahead at the start line will only lead to fatigue and dropping out of the race well before one even reaches halfway. A wise writer Lewis Carroll once wrote “haste makes waste, so I rarely hurry.” It is an adage we parents would be wise to adhere to.

There is enough and more medical and psychological research that proves that such early trials retard growth, disarray hormones, shatters adolescents’ ability to find their identity and distracts from the path of making ground for future establishment of emotional and financial independence?  This will not be a small quick singe on the surface of their psyche to remind them to be careful. This has potential of leaving a huge emotional black hole. Have we, as a society, analysed the damage an experiential learning during adolescence can and will wrought? Unfortunately I am not sure that we have. Hence, trying out they are, by the hordes and no community or society is exempt. And more importantly, parents (those same ones who protected their infants from fatally harming themselves by removing such that were potentially dangerous for their precious infants) are not able to protect them from the inevitable huge hurt and sometimes life changing / damaging impact such early ‘trying out’ is wreaking!

The question we as parents need to ask ourselves today is if our adolescents are ready for this kind of experiential learning? Do adolescents have the maturity to know how much to try and when to stop? By continuously participating with our teenage children in lose, inconsequential and completely valueless talk (engendered mainly by mass media), does society realize that it is making such topics relevant and desirable. Thus I think that we are subliminally (and sometimes, I have been told even explicitly) encouraging our children to experiment, to go out into the world and cope too early. Then can we in all honestly expect our adolescents to be so mature as to not fall foul of actually participating in sexual activities and using various chemical and narcotic substances too early, before they are ready and able to control such experiences instead of letting these experiences completely get a hold on them.

I think adolescence is too young to be trying out couple-relationships and use of substances (alcohol, tobacco, drugs), as at this age children have not had enough time to learn sufficient life skills that they will require to protect themselves in this worldly jungle we inhabit. To say nothing of the fatigue and inevitable cynicism too much experimenting engenders.

In our generation, what worked for people like me, is that such topics were not discussed with parents and hence were just not relevant to our daily life as teenagers. Thus there was low desire to try such activities as well. Okay now I know where this is headed and yes I get it, the correct way in our world TODAY (when every kind of exposure via media is so high), is for children to be able to talk to their parents about such topics, so that they can guide their children well. However, I think that parents and societies today are over-compensating for what our generation lacked. We are trying to chummy up to our kids and be their friends and at every moment we are encouraging the superficial media led and engendered teen talk of good looks, love relationships, alcohol and so on. I believe to truly learn from what went wrong one generation back, we must examine equally what worked as much as what did not work! What is particularly shocking for me is to see that educators are harking up this same path as well and the consequences are already disastrous, seeing these as I do just as they are happening. But I wonder whether societies can? I am thinking not. Or too little too late for this generation at least!

As I am not getting any soul-searching from societies in this regard, as a parent I am falling back on my own up-bringing. I am thinking how come I was not lured into dangerous social experimentation so young and some insights are unfolding before me. Looking back, I examine what is it that kept me on the straight path all those decades back. And the answer came to me in a flash – it was that self-same FEAR. Fear of losing faith of my parents, fear of disappointing all those who trusted me, fear of losing the trust and respect of my role models at home, in my school and in my social circle. That fear was there because the rules of the game was clear to me and I knew what my parents, my school and my society expected of adolescent children like me. It is really as simple as that. Clarity of parental and social norms.  

So FEAR is what I am using as my arsenal against this completely liberal, live and let live, norm-less world that we live in today. Where parents and teachers have become (or at least are trying to become) ‘best friends forever’ with their children / wards, to smoke and drink with (okay I understand the intention is to befriend to be able to guide and protect but IT IS NOT WORKING THAT WAY!), where educational institutions merely exist to provide information and not to guide, aspire or emulate (as they seem to lack the requisite will or learning support provided by research and empirical information), where societies are made to pay monetarily to support institutions that can support the results of adolescent experimentation (teenage pregnancies / single mothers and fathers, foster care, delinquent remedial centers. And the list goes on).

Hence, my husband and I decided about four years ago, when my first became a teenager, that we were going to, once again, try to swim against the tide. That we were aligned about using FEAR CONSTRUCTIVELY to guide and protect our children from experimenting too early. I think that so far, my husband and I have been able to successfully guide our older child in this regard and hope with just a few tweaks of this master template 🙂 it will work for our younger one as well. This below is what we as parents are doing:

  1. Family norms are unequivocally clear. My husband and I endorse these norms at every opportunity. We use both reason and emotion to give direction / advice / guidance. For instance: smoking ruins the internal organs, teeth and skin (no exceptions) and it is an activity that losers indulge in. Drinking destroys the growing brain cells and losers want to get drunk at every social occasion, else they cannot feel at ease and be themselves. Our children are AFRAID to damage their physical entities and AFRAID to be labeled losers (by their parents and their first role models).
  2. Encourage our children to start making their own decisions early on. And children learn early on that the incredible freedom of being able to decide for oneself is not a free ranging gift with no caveats :). In fact, it is a double-edged sword and always comes with responsibility and consequences. As parents we have always followed through with the consequences. Our children are AFRAID of owning that decision and bearing the consequences.
  3. We have taken pains to create an atmosphere of complete trust within the family. Information is shared on a regular basis and conversations of any and every kind is encouraged. We are agreed that discussions should be like debates, in that, objective and point of view sharing, not forcing, imposing or ‘scolding’ (God forbid). Our children are AFRAID of losing their parent’s trust and the precious freedom that this trust accords them.
  4. Topics such as dating are summarily dismissed as useless and lose talk, belittling what is and should be truly the most mature and precious relationship in human lives. Our children are AFRAID to sully an important relationship by playing around with it like small puppies do with a soft toy!
  5. Having discussions about leadership qualities, strong character, importance of a strong reputation and role models who have strong moral standing in society, definitely support our endeavor in this regard. We endorse their FEAR that loss of that reputation can and will be life changing – and not for the better.
  6. Our children are not only AFRAID of being thrown out of their amazing school if they are caught in any such delinquent behavior, they are MORTALLY AFRAID of being sent to an Indian school to face the competitiveness of number crunching hordes in that mammoth country.
  7. Our children are AFRAID of not measuring to their own expectations of themselves.

I have no doubt in my mind that my children too will experiment, as did my husband and I. But I am hopeful that the above described kind of parenting, will delay that experimentation till after teenage years and their hormones are a bit more settled, they are not still struggling to find their self-identity and they are a bit more mature. I am also hopeful that when they take the risk to experiment, they will be conscious of what they stand to lose and that will be the self-imposed limit between trying out and over indulging, between very risky experimentation and trying to make as safe an environment to experiment. And finally I am hopeful that by the time their ‘first time for adult experiences’ comes along – they will choose with thought, as they have been nurtured to from childhood.

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