In the first part of the series, Childhood Fears, we touched upon how parents often instil fear in the minds of their children. It could be a Gabbar Singh who might ask them, “Kitne toys the?” or Bogeyman who might abduct the kid if he doesn’t finish the meal or doesn’t brush his teeth properly.
Yes, parenthood has many trying moments and we are used to taking help from real and imaginary characters to ensure obedience. That does get the job done without making us (elders and parents) look like the bad guys – We’re just handing out gentle warnings and reminders, nothing else. That’s how we shrug the responsibility of threat whilst preserving the parent-child attachment. It’s harmless, right? After all, we all grew out of these fears.
The real harm of threats
As a kid, I always thought how much these bad guys cared about me being a good girl. Even as I did what was asked, I wondered how police would get to know that I watched cartoons on mute. I wondered if my parents would complain against me because no one else knows what happened at the house!
That’s the foundation of mistrust. Kids won’t think of their parents as a force to be feared with direct warnings like “no homework, no dinner”, but they will think of them as people who will tell on you. A simple remark like, “Let you dad come, I’ll tell you what you did today!” could harm the child’s bond with both her parents – “My father is hurtful and my mother can’t be trusted. So, who’s on my side?”
Yes, the child will eventually grow out of these fears, but this deep-rooted mistrust will discourage her from giving in to the genuine potential dangers. When the parents try warning against things like consequences of fast driving, not wearing a helmet, or smoking, kids will not pay any heed to them. And, aren’t those the real dangers to life than not keeping your toys in a box?
Plus, it takes unfair leverage of a child’s innocence. Young kids are highly imaginative which makes them susceptible to creating an entire narrative around the imaginary character; thus, amplifying the casual threats to the level of anxiety! They start fearing the unknown, feel paralysed by the consequences of a misstep and eventually, get silent and holed up in a corner. No parent would want that.
So, the question is what a parent must do to instil good habits without instilling fear or mistrust.
Good habits minus fear minus mistrust
There are two simple ways of ensuring that.
Convey the reason to have that habit in an age-appropriate manner.
For example: Share how you got hurt tripping on one of their toys or how a cousin had to get the tooth removed because of not brushing every day and how painful that was. If possible, get the cousin to talk to your child about that. Initially, it may seem like too much work, especially when you’re constrained by time and a huge job list. However, such little efforts will eventually give you the credibility and the child understanding that those consequences are a real possibility.
So, obedience will come slowly, but logically and naturally, an obedience that stays.
Instead of giving vague examples of evil in the world, speak directly to the child.
For example: Describe the difference between bad touch and good touch. Tell your child that even you are scared that something, like that might happen to them and thus, knowing all about it, can help them help the child.
Over to you
It seems easy and efficient (time and effort-wise) to invoke evil characters with extraordinary powers to submit the child to good behaviour. But, their efficacy in establishing good habits is as transient as their fear.
However, when you are honest with your child for instilling a good habit or dissuading another, you empower the child with a logical reason to continue obeying you. You not only establish yourself as their confidante, but also as someone who is looking out for them in the big, bad world.
This article is part two of our series on Childhood Fears. To learn about the origin and progression of fear in kids and how parents can respond to their child’s fears in the right way, read part one and part three.