Each night it is my responsibility to put the kids to sleep. And each night, after the lights are off and Polly is starting to fall asleep, Pip gets antsy. I don’t know exactly why but at that moment when Polly’s head starts to nod, Pip seeks out ways to avoid settling down. Sometimes it involves rolling around on his bed. Other times he complains about being too hot or too cold. Many times he asks random questions for which I have no answer. All of this activity is usually harmless. Pip will eventually go to sleep. He just has to get this last something out.
But, one night a couple of weeks ago, he brought out something new:
“Scared of what?”
“There are strange noises out there and its dark.”
While this exchange felt straight-forward, the sound of his voice suggested otherwise. There was none of the halting nervousness that Pip gets when he is frightened by a bad thunderstorm. Instead, there was this tinny, searching quality, a trait that usually shows up when Pip is looking for some kind of attention.
I had expected something like this might be in the offing. Earlier that day I had spent more time than usual cooking while the kids were awake. I was trying to get some eggs and some potatoes made up so we would have them for later in the week. Pip and Polly are used to having my undivided attention, but for a time they found ways to occupy themselves without involving me. Eventually, Pip began to feel the effects of my neglect. His voice got louder. His movements became more jumpy and exaggerated. He started getting into things on the shelves that he normally doesn’t touch. The situation did not spiral out of control, but for the rest of the afternoon, I was very cognizant of Pip’s state of mind. As such, it wasn’t a surprise when he sought some extra attention at bedtime.
The substance of his complaint was not that surprising either. One of the books in our regular rotation contains a story about a little girl who is afraid of the dark. She hears sounds she can’t identify and calls in her mother to explain them away. The book ends with the little girl realizing that there is nothing to be afraid of, but its difficult to know exactly how a kid interprets the ‘lesson’ of such a book.
Oftentimes, when we encounter a situation in a book that suggests ideas we’d rather not have Pip and Polly chewing on or mimicking, we attempt some counter-programming. This usually consists of changing a few words here and there or just skipping over the questionable pages altogether. Our most successful counter-programming effort to this point has been with a Sesame Street book in which Elmo’s class takes a field trip to a doctor’s office. During the field trip, Elmo’s teacher winds up getting a shot. Before the doctor administers the shot, Elmo and his classmates are scared and they talk about how brave their teacher is. After the shot is finished, they relax and mention how much the shot will help him feel better. When Ava and I read this book to the kids, we just skip over the parts about being scared. We reason that if the kids don’t know they are supposed to be scared of a shot, they are less likely to make an issue of it when they have to have one. Since we first started reading this book, Pip has received multiple shots and has handled each one without a single tear. Also, whenever he pretends to be a doctor, he gives all his stuffed animals shots and makes no extra effort to comfort or reassure them. In his mind, they don’t need it. A shot is no big deal.
Of course, counter-programming isn’t really possible when, as with the story about the little girl in the dark, the whole premise of a book is based around a particular fear. In this case, our challenge is to present the proper reaction if and when the subject comes up.
I have learned over time that managing my reaction is one of the fundamental skills of parenting. This is because all human knowledge is based on a series of experiments. You try something. You see what reaction occurs. Perhaps you do it again and again and again to establish a sense of how repeatable that first reaction is. If the reaction happens with some consistency, you assume the presence of a pattern. Knowledge is essentially the assumption that pattern one observes will continue to hold true. With kids, this process of knowledge creation is amplified. They don’t have a large backlog of experiences to draw upon, so each act they make takes on a heightened importance. Their actions and the reactions that follow establish precedents for their future assumptions about the world. In other words, if Pip tries out the ‘I’m scared of the dark’ line and gets a reaction like the little girl in the book got, he is well on his way to learning that being scared of the dark will get him attention.
The real trick is that with something like being scared of the dark, it is very easy to overreact. Standing there in the darkened room, it was very tempting for me to either pacify Pip (“It’s okay. I’m here”) or deny his statements (“What’s wrong. There’s nothing to be scared of.”). However, both choices essentially would provide Pip the extra attention he was seeking. Silence was not option either. Pip is very intuitive. He can sense my uncertainty and will internalize that reaction. He will also still demand that I respond to him in some way. He is very tenacious in that respect.
So, after our initial exchange, I paused trying to figure out how best to avoid creating a downward spiral where Pip’s experiment with being scared of the dark eventually morphs into an actual, attention-seeking fear. Hoping to prompt a touch of self-awareness, I decided to take an indirect angle. I asked Pip if he said he was scared of the dark because of the book.
“Yes,” he said.
“Maybe we shouldn’t read it again for a little while.”
“Okay,” Pip said.
After a brief pause, he continued. “Daddy, I’m still scared.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s get your sister to sleep.”
The next night after the lights were out and Polly was once again starting to fall asleep, Pip said to me again,
“Daddy, I’m scared.”
I realized then that the night before I had made a mistake. By suggesting that we not read the book for a while, I had managed to provide feedback to Pip’s search for attention. By saying “Daddy, I’m scared,” Pip had made something new happen. The feedback was negative, but it was feedback just the same. He wasn’t sure how or why it came, but now he was trying again to see if he could get a similar result.
Fortunately, because knowledge is not an instantaneous thing, because it is the result of doing something again and again until the outcome feels given and predictable, I had a second chance. This time I wanted to acknowledge his words without giving them too much importance, a situation perfectly suited for the frustratingly bland “Okay, I understand.” I’ve used this many times before when Pip or Polly wants something that I am not prepared to give them. It always feels a bit insidious coming out of my mouth, but it’s an effective way to avoid saying the word “no.” And it worked this time as well. Pip and I went through the cycle a couple of times that night before he fell asleep and again every night for the next two weeks. He tried the idea a couple of different ways, but I did not waver from my blandness. Finally, Pip got bored and, to my relief, dropped the question of darkness in favor of requesting an extra trip to the bathroom. This allowed me to put ‘fear of the dark’ back on the shelf with all the other silly things I don’t want him to get hung up on.
Now, if I can just get him to eat some broccoli, we may really be on our way…