Screw up Your Kid: Teach Him to Fear the World

I was standing outside one of the hospitals where I do consulting work, sipping a coffee. After a very long week that included working with two suicidal clients I was secretly hoping my beverage would magically transform into a whiskey. But no luck.

A small boy, three years old at most, started ambling toward me in that zigzag way toddlers walk. I don’t think he was coming at me per se, as I’m told I give off a vibe to children that screams STAY AWAY! This is probably true because I’m very much afraid of small children. I can’t exactly figure out why this is, although part of me thinks that if I come in contact with one and hold it, I’ll end up dropping and breaking it.

The toddler wasn’t in any real danger as we were on a secluded street without a lot of traffic. But as the child moved farther from his mother, she began to angrily shout. “You stop! If you don’t come back here bad people will get you and hurt you and take you away forever!” The child started crying, turned around, and ran back.

I really wanted to punch the woman in the face. I loathe poor parenting, and this was uneducated child rearing at its worst. Yes, toddlers should not be roaming free along the streets of New York City. Yes, children are kidnapped every day. And yes, sometimes children are very recalcitrant, causing parents to lose their tempers. So what is the problem?


The problem is that scare tactics like hers send an indelible message: fear the world. While no one can deny that living in the modern world carries risks, people are unable to live happy lives if they are fearful of every possible negative event. This is why hypochrondriacs (those who constantly believe they are deathly ill) are usually in fine physical condition, yet are miserable almost all of the time, because there’s that chance, that ever so slight chance, that they have a life-ending ailment.

After 9/11 I spent a lot of time with parents talking about how to discuss safety with their children. There wasn’t a simple answer because none of us had any ideas about the likelihood of another attack, when or where it would occur or in what form. The best statement about the intersection between safety and mental health, however, came from a father who should have been Parent of the Year:

“All of us have a relatively short time on this earth. It could be 100 years or just a few days. So we have to make the most of it. This doesn’t mean taking unnecessary risks or treating yourself like you’re invincible. It means enjoying your life while recognizing the potential dangers of it. If you can do that you’ll more often than not be happy. Don’t live with a fear of the world, just a respect for it.”

So how does this wisdom translate to the mother with the toddler? She obviously can’t tell him that he might drop dead tomorrow. That will terrorize him. She should be saying something like this:

“When we go outside on the big city streets I want you to stay close to me. The city is a great place but there are some things that can hurt us, like speeding cars, so we need to be paying attention. And although most people are very nice, there are some people who are not. Until you are older I want to make sure that you don’t get hurt by any of them so please stay next to me while we’re out. That way we’ll have the most fun possible.”

I’m sure there’s some mushier, more motherly way of saying that while still getting the point across, but knowing how moms speak to three year-olds is beyond the scope of my expertise.

Instead, this poor kid is being taught that there is a predator every fifty yards who’ll chop off his hands and feet if he moves away from his mother. These are the children who turn into anxious adults. They don’t ever hear the proper message so they grow up with a twisted one. These people unfortunately end up playing the game of life not to win, but rather simply not to lose.

The next time you see parents using scare tactics on their kids feel free to throw your scalding coffee in their faces. Or, failing that, politely direct them to this post.

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29 Responses to “Screw up Your Kid: Teach Him to Fear the World”

  1. Great article, Rob. The message is clear, but just know that is a lot of information for a 3 year old. Short and sweet is best and I would have punched that woman in the face. 🙂

  2. Charles says:

    Haha, I don’t know if strangers throwing coffee in the faces of over-protective parents will help reinforce the idea that the world isn’t dangerous to the children.

  3. rach says:

    She should be saying something like this:
    “When we go outside on the big city streets I want you to stay close to me. The city is a great place but there are some things that can hurt us, like speeding cars, so we need to be paying attention. And although most people are very nice, there are some people who are not. Until you are older I want to make sure that you don’t get hurt by any of them so please stay next to me while we’re out. That way we’ll have the most fun possible.”

    Well Said, Dr. R.
    I have similar issues in my work in the aquatics field. You’ll have a 4 year old hurrling himself towards the edge of the pool and the mom is screaming: “NO! YOU’LL DROWN!”
    It’s my job to not only teach the kid why they shouldn’t be running at the pool (god, I hope it’s a filled pool!) but also to teach the parent how to communicate water safe/friendly attitudes.
    It’s amazing how many messages we hold on to as we become adults – albeit unconscious ones – that our parents passed on to us while trying to help.

  4. Wayland says:

    Rob, tsk-tsk for not knowing more moms. Heh-heh-heh. Talk to John.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Rob,
    So you met my Mom today!
    WT

  6. Lizza says:

    This reminds me of the parents who are too lazy to do their own work – eg, the kid wants candy or something, parent doesn’t want them to have it, so they say, “Oh, that mean lady/man (aka the cashier) won’t let you have it!” Or, “If you don’t stop, that lady’s going to get very angry at you!”
    Cashiers/workers =/= parents. People need to realize this.

  7. Colleen says:

    The other byproduct of this approach is kids who are clingy and need excessive encouragement to do anything even vaguely risky. Back in my camp counselor days we had a kid like this. I had a small breakthrough in my behavior modification abilities when I realized that all his complaining about kids being mean and excluding him was just attention seeking behavior, and given the choice he preferred the doting attention of an adult consoling him over the potential rejection of interacting with his peers. After explaining that no, the kids were not excluding him (I’d been watching his interactions with them) and he could just ask to play in their game and they would let him, he started to protest as usual and I simply walked away. He looked panicky and confused at first, but within five minutes he was playing with the other kids without issue. It’s just a shame that these sorts of life skill lessons are being left to camp counselors and teachers who have to undo the work of the parents.

  8. Amber says:

    I was at the pool one day with the fam, so my munchkin went into the men’s dressing room with his dad and I headed off to the girly room. There was a group of people in there with very young children, no big deal right? Well I had gotten suited up and I think I by no means look scary, but I have a few tattoos, some bigger than others and in very plain sight when wearing my swimsuit. This one woman was sitting on the bench about 2 feet from me and one of the little girls she was watching had walked up near me and said hello. So I said hi back and went back to locking my stuff up. The woman grabbed the little girl’s arm and pulled her back and said very loudly “we don’t talk to strangers”. I don’t have an issue with that, it was the fact that she was two feet away, and I’d done absolutely nothing that could have even remotely been considered aggressive or out of sorts. It had me really annoyed.
    On the other hand there’s a little boy that lives in my neighborhood, the kid can not be any older than three, I’m guessing closer to two. He doesn’t live in my row of townhouses, in fact I have no idea where he lives, but everyday he’s in my backyard without a parent in sight. This just makes me angry. I’ve seen this kid drop his pants and start taking a piss in the yard. I can’t believe someone would allow this! I’m at a point now that I want to call CPS and report it, but I have no idea what would be done, if anything. Any advice?

  9. Celina says:

    My mother taught me, without fail, every stranger wants to abduct me. I’d get a slap upside the head for not noticing a man in my vicinity who was making no attempt to interact with me. Every body (including people my own age, playmates) are out to get me and only want to ruin my life. I appreciate now that she was just trying to protect me, but the resulting social phobia was an unwelcome result.

  10. Ben says:

    Scaring the hell out of kids is what we do best. Some of the kids I know are convinced that the slightest puff of second-hand smoke is going to make their bodies sprout tumors…which, of course, is irrelevant because we’re all going to die of global warming.

  11. Sarah says:

    It always amuses me to hear non-parents talk about parenting styles.
    Kids don’t come with owner’s manuals, and every kid is different. My two sons are about as polar opposite as fully biologically related siblings can be, so what worked with my older son doesn’t always work with my younger son. My older son responds really well to positive reinforcement. The worst punishment I can inflict on him is to be disappointed with his behavior.
    My younger son, on the other hand, well… there is no set “what works for him.” On one day I may have to put the fear of God into him, but the very next day he’ll be all “Screw that! I’m gonna do it anyway! Consequences be damned” This is the same kid who, despite already figuring out that hot = burned fingers, decided to re-test the theory and touch the stove again.
    I can tell you, though, that it’s pretty universal among young kids: they don’t “get” subtlety. And when you have approximately a 1/10 of a second to prevent your kid from getting hit by a truck, there’s not a whole lot of time to say, “Honey, that truck could hurt you if it hit you. You need to stay next to me… etc.” If you have a kid like my younger son, who has fairly minimal impulse control, you may actually need to make your kid cry in order to prevent him/her from killing him/herself. It’s shitty, but you do what you have to do to keep your kids alive.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily condoning helicopter parenting styles, or those parents who make their children afraid of the world. It breaks my heart to see kids in perpetually pristine clothes, not a speck of dirt on them, because their parents are paranoid about “their precious little snowflake” possibly coming in contact with mud (because that mud may be contaminated with Ebola/MRSA/H1N1/sexual predators).

  12. Child Psych says:

    A couple thoughts:
    1. Why is a three-year expected to keep himself safe on a city street? Isn’t it her responsibility to keep him at her side by holding his hand? Whether or not this constitutes neglect on the part of the parent is debatable. In my experience, it is likely to reflect a parent who does not understand child development and expects their child to think and behave like a much older child.
    2. Parenting by threats of this sort does not lead to secure attachment. It reminds me of time when I was working at an agency that a parent said to their child (who didn’t want to leave the waiting room to go home)–“If you don’t come now, I’m going to leave you here and never come back!” Leaving aside the impact of this on the child and their relationship, what was I expected to do with him if she made good on her threat? Have him live in my office? Take him home with me?

  13. Esther says:

    I loved this post. My parents used scare tactics on me when I was a kid and I’ve spent a lot of time rearranging my perspective. Thanks.

  14. Miquel says:

    The blog was really fantastic! Lots of good information and enthusiasm, both of which we all need!

  15. Shad says:

    Obviously not a parent. I dare you to try to throw a coffee at me. I don’t believe in scare tactics, but I also don’t believe that a violent solution would help the kid to believe that the word ISN’T full of people with bad intent. Again. Obviously not a smart person, nor a parent.

  16. […] year, I wrote an short blog post called Screw up Your Kid: Teach Him to Fear the World. It was directed at hyper-vigiliant parents who live in constant fear that their child will be hurt […]

  17. suzy pepper says:

    I’m pretty sure this is how my mother screwed me up. Sigh.

  18. taylor says:

    My mother used just the right amount of scare tactics to let me shake off the paranoia eventually and turn it into street smarts, which I am appreciative of. She did, however, go much farther in making sure I treat women right. So now I am uncomfortable touching women in casual contexts because I feel like I’m being inappropriate or too touchy. Yes, even my hand on her shoulder brings to my head the literally hundreds of 5- or 10- minute lectures my mother continues to give me in my 22nd year. Yay for brainwashing!

  19. Bobby Bob says:

    I love the harping “I BET YOU’RE NOT A PARENT” replies that let the entire message fly over their heads.

  20. Fowkes says:

    Very high-quality article. For someone who hates kids you at least have some good info on what to do with them.

  21. Ian K says:

    Shrink sir,

    do you have any tip on how to outgrow fear of the world? Perhaps that could be an idea for the next blog post… I believe many will be thankful to you. Thanks for your time and,

    Cheers!

  22. Emmy says:

    I agree with Lizza. This is just lazy parenting. I see just as many parents let their kids run wild in coffee houses, ramming into people and knocking stuff over. Ultimately it’s about teaching your kids to become good members of the community. So many parents these days forget that. I attended horse camp beginning at 4 years of age and by the time I was 7, caring for 2 barns worth of horses. I’ve been kicked, dragged and trampled. We were not so much yelled at to be careful as we were yelled at if we did not get up fast enough. I am not afraid of animals – instead, I respect them for what they are – and for their power. As a result, I now love animals – work as a Biologist (my fellow camper became a Veterinarian). My philosophy has always been – kids bounce. They should learn by experience, not lectures.

    (I don’t have kids, therefore I take no responsibility for that last remark). 😉

  23. Chris says:

    Wow. Thank you for this post! I encounter “problem parents” nearly every day working with a pediatric ophthalmologist. I’ve had so many parents admonish their child for crying and resisting eye drops by saying “If you don’t stop crying, they’ll give you a shot.” Yup, thanks for making my job EVER so much easier, mom. You win Mom of the Year award. Nothing like telling a five year old that expressions of fear and uncertainty will be punished. I take these parents on by illustrating how unhelpful their comments are. Bad parenting may be my biggest pet peeve.

  24. Ehhh says:

    Better to have a child afraid of the people who could hurt them, than a child dead because no one cared enough to let them know that there are people out there like that.

  25. Jordan says:

    To the folks saying it’s better to let the child know the world is dangerous rather than provide some leniency:

    It’s not this or that, it’s a happy medium of responsible parenting. Making your child terrified of dangers out there could lead to making him or her a social cripple because they will be afraid of interactions with others as they will be constantly weighing potential negative outcomes instead of living in the moment and enjoying themselves. They might never trust people and it could hurt them socially and professionally.

    Sure, kids get concussed, kids get abducted, but terrifying them to keep them safe will teach them to be too safe and never do anything for themselves.

    I have been in the process of unlearning a lot of these behaviors, while not as extreme, and it has been a bitch. I have to ignore an entire dialogue in my brain daily in order to operate in a pretty safe world because I thought I was going to be hurt, mocked or shunned from the get-go. Prevent them from ever getting to that process and you are creating a little winner who will try all kinds of things, fail, and learn and possibly succeed.

  26. William says:

    I am 17 years old and I was once walking on the street with my mother. I went around a corner slightly before her, and she said “there could be someone around there who will scoop you up… NEVER do that again”.

    I can’t say for sure that she was wrong… but I can say that the wording was scary. I was very young and had never heard the word “scoop” used in that way. I imagined a back hoe or something scooping me up in its bucket (aka, its scoop). I am very afraid of heights… so I stayed with my mother after that.

    To this day, I think of that time every time I walk around a corner in this little city of 5,000 people.

  27. Anonymous says:

    i see nothing wrong with being absolutely honest with a child. its only a scare tactic if it isnt true. i teach my kids honestly and they are not abnormally fearful. my 6 year old knows not to go next to a pool alone because he could drown yet had no problem getting in the water with his swim instructor and learning. its about honesty. if you dont teach your kids about the real dangers how can they stay safe? no parent no matter how good can be with their child 24/7 and even a split second can make a difference if a child is taken or drowns or whatever. teaching a child to protect themselves by not doing certain things is one of the best things you can do for your child.

  28. Fear Monger says:

    FEAR!!! Teach these kids pure, unadulterated FEAR!!! Every waking moment of child’s life should be spent thinking the Boogie Man is going to jump out and snatch them from the precious caring arms of their Mother. FEAR!!! Teach them the world is horrible, the opposite sex is a monster and leaving home is a death sentence!!! FEAR!!! Keep these kids second guessing themselves so Momma can control every action, dictate every conversation and ultimately create a dehumanized servant who will never leave home!!! And if the child ever leaves home or doesn’t call Momma everyday or get Momma’s approval for every life decision…THERE WILL BE BLAME, SHAME AND GUILT BESTOWED ON THAT CHILD!!! Must…spread…FEAR!!!

    This message has been brought to you by the coalition and partnership for Children Who Never Leave Home.

  29. Anonymous says:

    Good article

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