By Gregory Keer
My son Benjamin was almost 3 when his mother and I subjected him to the single scariest moment of his young life. Sitting in a pleasant movie theater to see Thomas and the Magic Railroad, we witnessed a trailer for The Grinch.
On the screen, a distressed Whoville girl asked the as-yet-unseen Christmas thief, “Who … who are you?” The camera tilted at a crazy angle and zoomed in on Jim Carrey’s furry green face, looking like a crossbred monkey-dog on steroids, as he monstrously snarled, “I’m the Grinch!”
Benjamin howled in terror: “Ahh – ahh – ahh – ahh!” Huge, heaving sobs punctuated his screams. My wife spirited him out of the theater to calm him as I sat in anger at myself for not doing enough to prevent this fearsome experience. I was also furious that the decision-makers who put the trailer before a movie aimed at preschoolers would think such a clearly ominous clip would be appropriate. Thankfully, Benjamin was able to return for the non-threatening (and boring) Thomas movie he came to see.
Although Benjamin can finally bring himself to look at a DVD box with that green mug on it, he remains sensitive about movies and TV shows. At age 6, he won’t see certain Disney films because of frightening scenes he’s heard about, and he recently leaped off the couch to hide from a dastardly insect in a TV version of Miss Spider.
Apart from scary images on silver screens, Benjamin is a pretty confident kid. He’s shy, but will say “hi” to adults if they say hello, and he has no problem running out of sight with his friends at a park. So, when we got a notice from his kindergarten about a locally run class aimed at “decreasing your child’s vulnerability to abduction and sexual exploitation,” my own worries kicked in.
Acknowledging ‘Real-Life’ Monsters
The real monsters out there are kidnappers, abusers and killers. But deciding whether my son would learn about such aggressors brought up many questions: Would I be exposing my son to new fears about the adults around him? Is it too soon for him to know that the world is full of people who might hurt him? People with nice smiles, without furry green faces? Would talk of inappropriate touching spur sexual curiosity in him at too young an age? Was I too young to be thinking about answering all the possible questions?
At the same time, I felt a duty as a parent to prepare my son for these real monsters. Wendy and I read over all the materials of the Safe-T™ program and felt assured that it was age-appropriate. It promised to talk about safety in public places and how to deal with strangers who come up to him.
After he went to the class, Benjamin returned home with rule sheets, a Safe-T™ coloring book, and a paper with three bold words indicating what a child should do if he or she is afraid: Say “no,” run and tell. It also had a “Pledge Form” for us to fill out a list of adults from whom he could get help.
The class and the homework have actually inspired few questions from Benjamin, though more may come later. For now, I feel moderately at ease that he’s a bit prepared for those people who might scare or (God forbid) hurt him. He has tools to help him feel more in control, which is the operative issue for anyone, especially a child.
Finding Middle Ground
One person he has control over is his 2-year-old brother, who Benjamin has discovered is even more easily spooked than he is.
After bathtime one night, I wore a towel with a terrycloth bear head on it. Jacob stared at it with concern before saying, “Take off the bear. I don’t like the bear.” I complied, but Benjamin smelled fear and stoked things higher: “The bear’s coming to get us! Quick, hide!”
In an instant, Jacob did a tap dance of alarm and jumped on me like a scared cat from a Looney Tunes™ cartoon.
“Help me from the mon’ter, Daddy. Help me!” he wailed.
I couldn’t decide what to do next: Should I laugh at the adorable way Jacob left out the “r” when he said “monster,” reprimand Benjamin for preying on his brother’s insecurity, or calm the son who’s afraid of a pretend bear made of super-absorbent cotton?
I did a little bit of everything, though I tried to focus on a lesson my wife taught me, “Never tell a child not to be afraid. Acknowledge the fear or it won’t get better.” So, I took the Super Dad approach, “Don’t worry, Jacob, Daddy will fight off this evil bear!”
I proceeded to tackle the towel-bear and warn him, “Leave this place and don’t return until you can be nice!” Jacob burst into belly laughter and all was right for the time being.
The fears of my young children are ones I can handle. I love being the protector and comforting their fears of imaginary monsters. Despite my own concerns about my kids having to understand too much at their tender ages, I realize that the more they know, the more they will be able to recognize the real monsters.
In the meantime, I’m working with scientists to create a 24-hour surveillance chip that will be surgically implanted and last until they get married.
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Gregory Keer is a writer, teacher and father of two boys. He can be reached at email@example.com or through his Web site, www.familymanonline.com.