Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Quick Word... On Scaring Children

I remember once as a kid, going for a holiday drive out to our bush property, and when we got there, finding the windows to the house had been smashed, our farm car had been pretty badly beaten up, and just general damage and destruction had been wreaked right around the place. Nothing had been stolen, but I couldn't settle down for our holiday after seeing what had happened. I was terrified.

I was a pretty impressionable and imaginative kid, and trying to sleep in the house that night was an ordeal that still makes my heart beat a little faster even now when I think about it. Whether it was the fringes of a dream, or merely my own paranoia, I started to hear things outside. The sound of young male laughter. The clank and slosh of a jerry can of petrol. The frantic scratch of a match being lit.

Of course, none of those sounds were out there. Whoever did the damage to the place, and whatever reasons they had to do it, they were done now. But I remained terrified just the same.

Fear in children is a powerful and consuming emotion. Children have very powerful imaginations and capacities for belief. While adult fear often presents itself as nervousness, the fear of a child is very different. It has a potency that is so much more obvious to the observer. A child's eyes in a state of fear are very hard to ignore in the adult realm, nothing gets our paternal instinct going like it. And for that reason it is the suggestion of many adults that we are to avoid scaring children, as it is an emotion they are not capable of handling. But this logic denies both the importance and necessary nature of fear, and more importantly, consequently classifies it as a second-grade emotion, and something to be avoided, rather than responsibly embraced.

I mention the issue because the subject has come up recently We'd been planning an evening pirate session for some time now, and decided that as part of the novelty of doing all the activities in the dark we should have a scary story. We came up with a tale about me being a pirate crew member who is taunted by his captain, and later gets revenge by leaving with the loot and allowing my captain to be captured. It was then that my boss suggested that he play the pirate captain, and make the sounds of a peg leg on the stairs near the room we were running the activities in, and shout that he had come back for what was rightfully his.

I thought we'd gone too far. The kids would be terrified, they wouldn't sleep, they wouldn't come back, the parents would be angry. We should just do the activities in a traditional, non-threatening way, and avoid any potential repercussions. Ironically it was my own fear of consquence that was going to stop me doing it.

My boss was adamant it would make the night worthwhile, so the experiment commenced. Later that night after telling the story, we played a quiet card game and there came a rhythmic thumping, and an eerie cough. The kids laughed for a second. Then the man in the corridor began to cackle and yell that he had come back and taken what was rightfully his. Some kids started running round the room, grabbing things for protection. Others sat there wide-eyed and motionless. The more extreme ones screamed at the top of their lungs, while another young boy clutched onto my coat, crying.

The pirate hobbled away, the pancakes were brought out, and many kids began to speculate as to what the stranger might have looked like. Most bounced back immediately, a few others were still tentative and keen to stay pretty close to the adults.

But none had forgotten it. Nearly a week later the same kids are returning to the shop asking me if I have seen the mysterious visitor since. Some are even still wearing the pirate hats they had on the night. Had we done an ordinary pirate activities night, there would have probably been little that redeemed itself in the children's minds. But the fear of the moment had made the entire night unforgettable.

My boss and I were talking to one of the mothers later about our hard decision of whether to include the scary pirate visitor or not. She turned out to be the mother of the crying boy who had followed me around, hands gripped like a vice on my sleeve. He had not slept well that night, she admits, but five days later is still talking about the experience.

I'm not suggesting for a second that we should pass our toddlers Saw IV on DVD and see what they think, but I am suggesting that fear is as important an emotion as any other, and although we shouldn't overstep the boundaries of being frightened, it is important to occasionally experiment with them.

I have been volunteering to visit and perform a reading of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book to local Primary Schools, and one expressed reluctance with what I believe to be the contention that the book was not suitable for its Grade 6 students, due to its opening paragraph which opens with the line 'There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife', and makes it very clear that a family has died in the space just preceding the books opening. The start of the novel is its most frightening part, and although presented with an eye to not being too confronting, sure, it's going to scare a few of the kids. But that fear is useful, by playing with fear in a safe environment, we're teaching kids how to cope with it when they are in an environment that isn't safe. Just as dangerous as a child who takes candy from a stranger, is a child too scared to move, who doesn't run back to mum and dad, but stands there like they have been suddenly frozen in place.

The moment we cover our faces and say "Boo!" to a baby, we are experimenting with fear. A baby laughs obviously, but it laughs as a response to being shocked and surprised. And for some reason we assume that this is the last time a child should feel afraid. But fear is something to be conquered in the long term, something to break down piece by piece and tackle.

Fear is what tells us there is a pirate in the hall, that there is an arsonist outside the bedroom laughing, that there is a monster under the bed. But time and time again we learn that the smartest of souls is not the one that closes their eyes and hopes it all goes away, but the one who bravely turns on the lights, steps outside, and dares to discover the truth.

Gaiman opens his other scary children's book Coraline with a quote from the writer G.K Chesterton: 'Fairytales are more then true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten'. In the same way, fear is not the experience of fright, but the lesson of bravery.

Fear is not there to tell us that the demons and evils of the world lurk around every corner, but instead that even the most terrifying evenutality can be tackled by those that are prepared to take a deep breath and do their best, even against the worst.

If laughter is the expression of feeling released from danger, then fear is the emotion that leads us - from one side to the other - through the danger itself. And for that, it's importance cannot be understated.

Image Source Used By Permission Under Creative Commons License

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