Culture of Fear

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Are We Cultivating a Culture of Fear in Our Children?

We seem to live in a culture of fear. Let me clarify what I mean by that. I’m not taking about phobias, or being afraid for what’s happening in the world like terrorism, the economy, North Korea, etc. Those are legitimate fears or maybe illegitimate, in the case of some phobias, but they’re not what I’m referring to here. I’m talking about an underlying sense of fear that is instilled in many of us from childhood. And it stems from two benign loving words:

“BE CAREFUL!”

How many times did you hear that growing up? And if you’re a parent, how many times have you said it to your own child?

Son:    “Mom, I’m riding my bike over to Jason’s house to play.”
Mom: “OK. Be careful!

Daughter:  “Dad, can I take the car to soccer practice?”
Dad:          “Yes, but be careful!

It’s almost an automatic, instinctive response from parents. And it’s not wrong. We want the best for our kids and we want them to be safe at all times, naturally. In fact, we know from evolution that fear can be healthy.

Be Careful

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In a CNN story titled “What is the science behind fear?”, Nadia Kounang wrote: “Fear is an adaptive behavior that we have to help identify threats. It is an ability that has allowed us as humans to survive predators and natural disasters… When presented with something that scares you, your brain reacts with its fight or flight response.”

Neuroscientist John Montgomery, Ph.D., has written for publications such as The Economist and The Washington Post. In an article for Psychology Today titled “Emotions, Survival, and Disconnection,” Montgomery elaborated on this idea: “Our emotions… were designed and fine-tuned by evolution largely to prepare us for action, for movement – to alert us to our true situation and help guide choices that ultimately must become physical choices… Biologically and evolutionarily, all negative or distressing emotions, like fear, disgust, or anxiety, can be thought of as ‘survival-mode’ emotions: they signal to the body and brain that our survival and well-being may be at risk, and are specifically designed to motivate behaviors and bodily responses that can most effectively deal with those risks and threats. You need fear to help you make good choices. Studies have shown that when animals are incapable of feeling fear, they don’t survive for very long, and the same is undoubtedly true for people.”

He then goes on to say, however, that “Most people in modern life… have far too much fear in their lives rather than too little, and this excess fear can be extremely destructive and crippling.”

Which brings me to my point. When our kids are young and we shout these words to them, something happens. Little Jimmy is playing on the swing-set. Mom yells, “Be careful!” What does Jimmy do? Typically, like most children at a young age, when he hears those words, he freezes. When children are young and they hear the words “Be careful,” it’s basically an instruction for paralysis. We are essentially saying, “Stop what you are doing right now because you might get hurt!” When we issue this command to our children, it’s not really something they can act on. What does it actually mean to them to “be careful” in a given situation? Wouldn’t it be much more helpful to provide a teachable moment, if you can. For example, it’s better to be more specific; to say, for example, “Look both ways before you cross the street” instead of “Be careful when you cross the street.” The former gives the child something practical they can act upon, while the latter just leaves them frozen in fear.

Of course, in times of imminent danger, it makes sense to shout those words to protect our children. But how many times do we as parents and adults instinctively use that command when there really is no immediate or actual danger at hand? I think we need to be careful how we use the phrase, “Be careful.”

In fact, there may be some long-term negative side effects of being an overly cautious parent. One result of telling our kids to “be careful” all the time is that they may become people who are adverse to taking chances. They may be afraid to try new foods or new experiences; or afraid to venture out in some new direction. Douglas Labier, Ph.D., addressed this in another article in Psychology Today titled “Why Your Fears Shape So Much Of Your Life.” LaBier wrote, “…fear plays a much broader but overlooked role… in many facets of people’s lives – including career dilemmas, conflicts around personal values, and problems in intimate relationships. Many fears are subtly conditioned by society’s norms and family pressures. They remain largely unconscious, and can fuel a range of emotional conflicts and dilemmas about life-shaping decisions.”

In one of his family columns for The Guardian, journalist and author Tim Lott encourages parents to stop trying to make their kids so fearful of life – and brilliantly states my case.

“A certain level of fear for children is appropriate, although it is quite hard to work out what that level should be,” Lott writes. “The real fear… is in the mind of the parent. They project that fear in the direction of the child as a kind of displacement activity, a way of doing something, of fantasising that the world can be made more safe than it is… The secret to a safe life, we seem to be telling our children, is to be perpetually worried. But the reality is, there is no such thing as a safe life – although the lives we lead are remarkably secure by global, historical and absolute standards… some element of risk in everyday life is inescapable. Perhaps that is something we might usefully teach our children. On the other hand, it might mean that we have a much happier younger population; one capable of facing up to reality, and therefore establishing some kind of resilience – which is far more useful, as far as I’m concerned, than the constant repetition of minuscule risks.”

Are we cultivating a culture of fear in our kids by constantly reinforcing their need to be careful? Our instructions may be well intended, but they can lead to unintended consequences, if our children are too afraid to live their fullest lives. Think about it – and let’s try to be more careful as parents to not cultivate a culture of fear in our children.