My daughter came to me frustrated yesterday evening.
“What is fear?”
Knowing she had just been out in the dark, I asked her if she was frustrated because she was afraid of the dark.
“No, I’ve gotten over my fear of the dark. Now I’m afraid of hedgehogs.”
“Ah. You’re afraid of stepping on them in the dark.”
“Well, you learned that from your father, who worries about stepping on hedgehogs in the dark. But I’ve actually stepped on hedgehogs in the dark.” I shrugged. “It’s not so bad—for me or for the hedgie. You tend to feel it before you put all your weight on it, and you pull back before you hurt it.”
She looked relieved.
It got me thinking about the nature of fear, how easily it is taught, and how difficult it can be to overcome.
Teaching children about insects, I see fear all the time. The fear that another living thing might harm us (and sometimes the fear that we might harm another living thing). Much of my teaching is aimed at overcoming those fears.
And in saying ‘overcoming,’ I don’t mean eliminating those fears—that’s the work of decades, not of an hour.
I know that, because I experience those fears, myself—they are deeply rooted in our culture, and I was taught them just like everyone else was. But I have confidence in spite of the fear. Part of that comes from knowing that the worst that can happen is really not all that bad (for most things). I have been bitten, clawed, and stung by songbirds, parrots, raptors, rabbits, rodents, snakes and all manner of insects and spiders, and have survived it all. More importantly, I’ve learned that if I understand the animal and move with confidence and care, I am unlikely to be hurt (or to hurt the animal).
So I don’t try to make children unafraid of insects; instead, I teach them how to move with confidence and care, even if they don’t feel the confidence yet. I teach them how to hold an insect safely. If I think they’re ready for it, I give them an insect that is likely to bite them—a tiny nip they might actually feel, if they’re paying attention. They might cry out, “Oh! It bit me!” They might fling the insect off their hand. But chances are good, they’ll pick it up again, because the worst has happened, and it wasn’t so bad. The act of taking the risk once makes it easier to do it again. Confidence grows. The fear may still be there, but it is diminished by understanding and experience.
I hope my daughter does step on a hedgehog in the dark. She will stumble in her effort to not squash it. She’ll cry out in surprise, and then laugh as the offended hedgehog lumbers away. When she goes out in the dark next, she’ll walk with more confidence. And because the fear will probably still be there, she’ll feel incredibly brave in doing so.