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fear in children

How Parents Instill Fear in Children (And Why We Shouldn’t)

Every culture has its fairy tales – as well as its boogeymen, creatures who care too much about teeth brushing and tidiness, and who have extraordinary powers to punish children upon the merest, banal provocation.

We use them to instill fear in children alongside good behaviour; for kids just beginning to make sense of their world, finishing a plate of veggies seems vastly preferable to the prospect of being chewed up themselves and regurgitated in furry miniature. (That’s the Australian furry fog tentacle demon for you.)

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In India, we favour a more mundane approach to ensuring obedience. From cops to ghosts, from Gabbar Singh to the Old Man With A Sack, we have a stock of real and imaginary characters that help us through the more trying moments of parenting.

I don’t care if you don’t put your toys away. But if you don’t, the old man with a sack will come and take you away….”

These phrases absolve us of consequences as parents – we’re the good guys; we’re just handing out friendly warnings! – and in this way are different from threatening children with direct consequences like, “If you don’t do your homework, you won’t get dinner” or “If you yell one more time, I’ll take away your TV time.” Threats like these set up the parent as a force to be feared and, as such, are damaging to the parent-child bond.

  Read more about using threats on The Swaddle.

But making a child afraid of a boogeyman fall-guy preserves the secure parent-child attachment, right? Not necessarily. It actually can lay a foundation of long-term mistrust in a scared child.

“What parents don’t realize is eventually kids are going to grow out of believing in boogeymen, but what could stay with them is a mistrust of their parents,” says Jehanzeb Baldiwala, a family and child therapist at Ummeed Child Development Center in Mumbai.

Later, when parents try to warn kids of genuine potential danger – like, say, the consequences of smoking, drinking or driving too fast – kids may or may not believe them.

More immediately, threatening by way of the policewala uncle doesn’t work well for the very same reason more personal threats don’t work with kids: The desired good behaviour we want to instill isn’t actually communicated.

“It doesn’t serve the purpose of instilling good habits in children because parents are not enabling them to understand and appreciate the reason behind what’s being asked of them,” Baldiwala says.

It also unfairly plays on children’s naiveté, she says. Children, especially 4- to 6-year-olds, are more susceptible to imaginary and intangible fears. They are also vulnerable to anxiety, which results from anticipating danger or harm, either imagined or drawn from a previous experience. At this developmentally sensitive stage, kids are capable of amplifying even casual threats; the threat of the old man in the sack coming to take them away if they don’t go to sleep like a good boy can easily loom even larger to become a feared consequence for every misstep or accident.

It’s easy to see this as a gentle introduction to the very real and scary ills of the world. But Baldiwala says parents are much better off speaking directly to their children about safety in an age-appropriate manner – as in, describing good touch versus bad touch – than instilling a vague understanding of evil.

We’ve all been dogged by the monsters of consequence in our youth, and have lived to tell the tale; in the end, an invocation of Gabbar Singh is unlikely to cause lasting personal damage. But with other, better ways of getting kids to cooperate, it may be best to leave the ghosts in their graves.

This article is part of a series on fear in childhood. Read part one on how childhood fears develop and part three on helping a frightened child.

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