The instillation of fear – Anna Spargo-Ryan

The instillation of fear

The instillation of fear

Tracey Spicer wrote an article. Yes she did.

In her article, she talks about making decisions for her child based on an emotional response. In this case, she would prefer that her child not sit next to a man on a plane, because of the (very small) possibility that that man might molest said child while on the plane. Tracey Spicer would prefer that her child sit next to a woman or, if possible, an empty chair, given the almost impossibility of an empty chair being a paedophile.

Obviously I take issue with the sexism of this piece. Men are more likely to sexually assault a child, so remove the man and remove the risk. We experience this every week at my place, where my ex-husband runs into parents (okay, mothers) who don’t want their child to come for a sleepover because he is the only adult there, and he is a man.

But that’s not even what I want to talk about.

I am a fearful person. I am afraid of heights, depths, confined spaces, open spaces, water, flying, people, boogers, falling off horses, nighttime, daytime, being alone, being in a crowd, peanuts, prawns and dying.

My mother is afraid of heights, depths, confined spaces, open spaces, water, flying, people, boogers, falling off horses, nighttime, daytime, being alone, being in a crowd, peanuts, prawns and dying.

My daughter is afraid of heights, depths, confined spaces, open spaces, nighttime and dying.

Do you see?

When I was a child, my mother taught me to fear everything. She wouldn’t let me catch the bus alone until I was 16, in case I got lost/was kidnapped/died. She didn’t like me to cross the road on my own. She always told me I was cold (“Anna, put on a jumper, you’ll get pneumonia!”). Every time I did anything, she asked me to confirm my successful completion of it.

My parents taught me to expect the worst of situations. That every time I stepped out of my front door, I should expect something mortally horrific to happen. That in going to the shops, I ran the risk of train accidents, car accidents, bus accidents, meteorite strikes, molesters, drowning in a river, being struck by lightning, being caught up in an armed robbery, slipping on ice, becoming a Liberal voter, losing my underwear and falling in love with the wrong man. They reiterated this every time they expressed their fear to me.

I spoke to my counsellor last year about Lily. Lily is scared of car parks. Every time we get out of the car, she clings to me as though she will never make it to the supermarket alone. She is nine years old and she knows how to look for cars. Short of a lunatic appearing out of nowhere, she is probably not going to be hit by a car. And yet, the fear. I didn’t understand it – I am not scared of car parks! Car parks are fine! In fact, car parks are the one thing in my whole life that I’m not scared of!

What my counsellor told me (and she has those narrow eyes that are always judging you) is that in warning Lily of the dangers of the car park, and in removing her from the situation that could pose a danger to her (by holding her hand, telling her to look out, keeping her close to me) I had taught her that she had a reason to be fearful in the car park.

Do you know how afraid I am of buses now? I would rather walk twenty kilometres in the snow than go around a roundabout on a bus. Because my mother taught me that I should be fearful of buses, which is why she wouldn’t let me catch them on  my own. When Georgia was a baby, there was one bus that I liked to catch. She and I got on it every day and went down along the beach. That bus had a sign as you got on: “Welcome to your safe, friendly bus.”

Brains — especially kid brains — are malleable. Some of the fears they learn are normal, even sensible. Yes, probably be afraid of putting your hand in a fire. Yes, probably be afraid of walking on a tightrope without a harness. Yes, probably be afraid of standing right next to a lion. These kinds of fears are designed to keep us alive. Animal instinct.

But there are many others, socially created fears, that don’t serve this purpose. They are as much for our own benefit as they are for our children’s. And there’s only so many fears one mind can bear before it becomes a fearful mind.

Think carefully about the fears you want to instil in your child. There should be some, to protect them. But they should not be everything. They should not be “poisoned by mushrooms from the supermarket” and they should not be “catching the bus”.

They should not be “men on planes”.

  • Lana

    April 28, 2014 at 3:47 pm Reply

    I love this Anna. My mum used to store food in the cupboards in our rooms in case of an apocalypse and when I grew up I had a terrible and debilitating fear that the world was about to end. A hideous and not irrational fear that landed me in hospital because I could not cope at all. But it wasn’t an irrational fear because I had been prepared for it my whole life…

    I do everything in my power to protect my child from the fear I carry around and I hope that I show him with ease that the there is more good than there is bad. Everywhere – even on planes

  • John James

    April 28, 2014 at 4:28 pm Reply

    Love this SO much Anna…

    I don’t have anything to say – just wanted to let you know…

  • Drew

    April 28, 2014 at 4:29 pm Reply

    Thanks…from a man fatigued by gender divisiveness

  • Catherine Rodie

    April 28, 2014 at 4:43 pm Reply

    Brilliant Anna. I didn’t read Tracey’s article – but I did flinch a bit when I saw the title.

    I am quite scared of dogs, particularly ones that jump up. When I had my girls I was acutely aware that I could pass on this fear – so I did everything I could to be ok with dogs and smile and say hello to them. I think I over did it though because my girls LOVE dogs now.

  • Jennifer Morton

    April 28, 2014 at 6:38 pm Reply

    How very true and how very much this topic has been on my mind lately.

    My son is not afraid of much (thank goodness) and I am aware that my fears (even the ones I try to hide) may rub off on him. Just last night I was looking on Amazon for a copy of Feel the Fear… and do it anyway. A book a doctor suggested I read 15 years ago. I think I’m now ready.

  • Lisa Lintern

    April 28, 2014 at 8:42 pm Reply

    This is a great piece and something I have been pondering so much lately. I too am a fearful person but lately I have slowly begun turning the corner with some professional help and a lot of challenging thinking. However, I don’t think we should be overly hard on ourselves if we do unintentionally teach our children irrational thinking. It’s so hard when are flooded with horrific stories from the media where the concept of ‘newsworthiness’ involves a huge dose of fear and “something horrible that could have happened to you”. Our perspectives are too easily distorted and we become so easily blind to the statistics that clearly show the chances are incredibly low. The psychology of the news cycle is so damaging. I am sympathetic to those of us who find it hard to balance the unlikely against the likely. I also feel sorry for Tracey who I believe was just being an honest and overprotective parent, rightly or wrongly. I think a lot of people could have written that article, again, rightly or wrongly, because our perspectives are so distorted by a media that thrives on fear.

  • Rae Hilhorst

    April 28, 2014 at 8:46 pm Reply

    Well all I can say is that I have probably scarred my children for life xx

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      April 28, 2014 at 8:48 pm Reply

      I think anyone who has even considered their kids’ ongoing mental wellness is already a hundred miles ahead of the average person.

  • JodiGibson (@JFGibsonWriter)

    April 28, 2014 at 9:21 pm Reply

    I grew up hiding behind my mothers skirt, fearful of everything. Now, I still am fearful of many things and always think ‘what if…’ Everytime I walk the dogs down the bike track near the river I think ‘What if someone is hiding in the bushes ready to attack me’. Every. Time. I won’t even go there without the dogs. That’s just one example.
    I am so mindful of not wanting my kids to grow up with this sort of fear and anxiety. So much so, that I probably am a little too lax with the kids. I need to find that balance.

  • Narelle Wheeler

    April 29, 2014 at 12:38 am Reply

    My mother was also timid and feared a lot of things. I think that John and I were the most affected by her nature but at least she tried to hide her fears from us. I did not know that she was terrified by thunderstorms until I was an adult she hid it so well. what she didn’t hide so well was her shyness. It took me most of my adult life to be able to mix relatively easily. Hope you learn to relax along the journey as I did. It makes things so much easier to worry about things that do happen rather than worry about what might. Good luck on your journey

    • John James

      April 29, 2014 at 8:28 am Reply

      I should point out, Anna, that Narelle is my wonderful sister! ;)

      And, yep, our mother’s timid nature was something that held me back as a person when I was a young adult. I’m still a natural introvert, but I don’t think I’m timid anymore.

  • Helen K

    April 29, 2014 at 1:34 am Reply

    Thank you Anna. I also read this article, and was furious and teary for the rest of the day (and progressed to rant via Twitter to Tracey Spicer, via poor Kerri Sackville, as I wasn’t sure how to do the twitter thing, and the comments section in the paper was closed). When I reflected why, I think it was due to anxiety too. I burst into tears explaining to my husband why it upset me – I feel that I am not always there for my kids as I am the main worker, my husband is the main carer, I hate the idea that this limits him and them re. social events, that perceptions re. men around kids, etc, means he cannot be the full-on volunteer at school that I want to be (and therefore, as I can’t be due to work, I want him to be – whether or not he actually wants to do it. That’s what good parent do – in my twisted logic). But probably underpinning that is that I too have learned from my mother to be hypercritical of myself, my parenting, my self worth. This article just hit me as yet another example of my failure (and yes, I acknowledge that I’ve had to stretch the meaning of the article to read that into it) – and also like my mother (and her mother before her), I do react to feeling worthless by getting angry (unlike her, I often bury it, but today I didn’t). I don’t expect to get a response from Tracey – for one thing, there were over 400 comments on the article – and her fears are probably not the point. It has been quite revelatory. I hope that the thoughts you have written have been to you too, and you can let go of the fears, as well as any guilt that you feel, and it enables you and your daughter to start to heal. Best wishes with it, too.

  • hogsandwich

    April 29, 2014 at 2:00 pm Reply

    I love this post. As the child of a chronically anxious lady, I totally get where it’s coming from. In my case it was my mother’s chronic fear of getting fat (she’s 5″ and a size 8) that caused all sorts of grief.

    I’ll admit that my concerns about transmitting my own inadequacies has probably played a part in me not having children O_O

  • Bronwyn Joy

    April 30, 2014 at 12:01 am Reply

    Good thoughts. I struggle with this balance and now I’m reflecting in a new way on how my son also struggles.

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