A few years ago, my mom and I saw a toddler having a tantrum about leaving an outdoor tourist attraction at closing time. She wanted to walk–NO she wanted to be carried–NO she wanted to ride in the wagon–NO she wanted to shriek and thrash in the gravel!!! This went on and on and on while her parents hovered over her, saying tentatively, “Honey? Wouldn’t you like to maybe ride in the wagon?” As we passed, my mom said to them, cheerfully but firmly, “Show. No. Fear.” She told me she knew it wouldn’t be helpful to get more involved than that, but she hoped that that phrase, which had been her mantra in dealing with toddlers, would help them take charge.
Now that I have a young child myself, I’m understanding better what she meant: When he freaks out, I feel afraid–that he’ll hurt himself, that he’ll hurt me, that people who see us will think I’m a bad parent, that if I force him to do something I’ll damage him–but showing him my fear won’t help either of us. He needs me to keep myself together and show that I know what to do in this situation that’s freaking him. He also needs me to control my fear because fear leads to anger, and my getting angry isn’t going to help, either.
As a developmental psychology major, I learned about the four styles of parenting. I was raised by authoritative parents. I remember many, many times when they firmly directed me to do something I did not want to do, but within minutes or hours or days I realized that their judgment was better than mine. (That’s not to say they were always right, particularly as I got older, but they were usually right, which led me to trust them.)
It’s unfortunate that the researchers who named the parenting styles chose two terms that sound so similar, because there is a big difference between authoritARIAN and authoritATIVE. The authoritarian attitude is, “You must bow to my will always, because I said so, or else I will make you regret it.” The authoritative is, “Sometimes it is necessary that you do what I say, even if you’d rather not, because my wisdom and experience give me better judgment, and in time you’ll see that I am right.”
Fear has its place. I am afraid that my child or I might get hit by a car, and that’s a reasonable fear when we’re walking near traffic. While I don’t want my child to be crippled by fear in his life in general, I do want him to be afraid of things that are truly dangerous. I’m teaching him to fear cars but also to manage that fear the way I do: by being careful to stay out of the way of cars, following pedestrian safety rules, and trying to interpret the intentions of drivers. I’ve allowed him much more opportunity to walk (rather than be carried or strollered) near traffic, from an earlier age than many kids these days, to help him develop these skills and build them right into his understanding of how to get around in our world.
I often hear, in discussions of positive discipline, that people don’t understand how a parent can never spank a child because you just have to spank in certain situations–and the most commonly cited example is a child running out into traffic. After rescuing your precious child from his brush with death, they say, you must spank him to teach him never to do that again. This is a classic example of showing fear in the wrong way. The parent’s fear for the child’s safety is escalated into anger (“I told you not to do that! How dare you disobey me? I’m your mother!”) and the child learns not to fear cars but to fear the parent and the pain she inflicts.
Well, one day Nicholas ran out into traffic: He jogged confidently into a crosswalk as soon as the light changed, not having noticed that the driver stopped on the cross-street was talking on a cell phone and signaling for a left turn. She also started moving as soon as the light changed, heading right for him. My reaction was to scream and grab him and drag him onto the sidewalk and point to the obliviously departing car as I shook wordlessly. Then I explained, “She wasn’t looking. She almost hit you! Oh, I’m so glad you’re safe!” After many hugs, I reminded him that even when we have the right of way, we have to beware of cars that might break the rules. Although Nicholas thought I was over-reacting (“The car didn’t even touch me, Mama! I think she did see me.”), he did understand my concern. I don’t see how spanking him would have helped.
So it’s not that a parent must never show fear of anything. What “Show no fear.” means is this: Don’t show your child that you’re afraid of her, afraid that her behavior will ruin everything. That gives her too much power. Not only does giving your power to your child diminish your ability to take charge, but it’s disturbing to the child. She is so small and so freaked out by her big feelings; seeing that her big feelings freak you out, too, makes them seem bigger and scarier. Instead, remember that you know how it feels to freak out, and you know it will pass. Decide what really needs to happen now, make it happen, and let everything else go.