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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