“Tell me a story!” she says, the lights off and her little face barely visible in the nightlight-lit room.
“Once upon a time…” I begin. “There was a little kitten.”
“AND A MONSTER!” she interjects, her face rapt with imagined terror that she already knows she will resolve in her telling of the tale that she has taken over. Her fear is somehow empowering rather than powerless.
I go silent and I let her tell the story to me. I cannot understand all of it, her words blend together when she rushes and in the dark room it’s harder to lipread than it usually is. Her face is animated as she experiences fear, revelation of a solution, and a triumphant victory over her fears. At the end of it she smiles and snuggles into my side and falls asleep. I have said very little.
What a strange and kind of wonderful take on the classic childhood fear. Monsters in the dark at bedtime.
This isn’t a place that she and I came to out of some plan that I had. I could never have imagined this. It’s too different from all of the stories that I have heard. It’s not something I could intentionally create, either. It is a place that she and I have come to across the two and a half years of her life through the moments of fear and uncertainty that she has experienced.
I have told her that monsters are imaginary things and not real ones like the rabbit or the cat, but I have never told her that she should not be afraid of the things that she imagines. I have never told her that she should not be afraid of the things that she fears in real-life either. I’ve honored her fears of loud noises as we have watched them from the distance. I’ve honored her when she has shown me that it’s time to leave a place where she does not want to be. I held her near when she had separation anxiety, and I’m a safe place to snuggle up to at night if she has the need.
I’ve done all the things that I’m “not supposed to do” if I want an independent resourceful child that has the ability to be fearless. I have not done the things that I am “supposed to do”. I have not forced her to confront her fears. I have not tried to demonstrate that they are a petty nonsense of childhood.
But here she is, this child of mine. In my arms, telling me stories about the monsters and how she triumphs over her fears.
She is two and a half years old, only thirty pounds of a whispy little human.
How did we get here?
I think back on the moments that she has been uncertain and afraid. Where her body has been rigid and quivering as she has clung to me in fear. The times that I have forced the “should” thoughts out of my head and have simply been there for her while she was afraid and needing a safe place to work out her fears.
The day before she turned two…
She startled and scrabbled into my legs, I swept her up to my hip and smiled. “What’s wrong?” Her little face crumpled in worry and her eyes scanned my face and saw my calm. “Noise!” She said, full of curious worry.
“You hear a loud noise?” I ask, calmly. She is scared, that is fine. She is small and the sound is new. I am not afraid, it is a sound I know and expect. I can honor her fear without echoing it or agreeing to find it fearful myself.
“Yes! Noise! Loud! Ears!” She says, earnestly.
“Are you scared?”
“Yes”, she says, looking down, lower lip quivering.
“Do you want to see what it is?”
And we go to explore. The loud saws trimming the bushes outside, the leaf blowers.
Her tense body slowly relaxing into my calm.
These are the patterns we are building for her. Her fear, our comfort and safety.
She is learning that fear is not to be feared, that it is accepted and that I will help her understand the things for caution, for acceptance, for fun, and the things to truly fear.
… At the end of her second summer when the days grew shorter and the darkness came earlier and earlier, she feared this darkness that seemed so new.
Keenie is suddenly afraid of the dark having not seen it much over the summer. “Too dark!” She says, pointing out the window.
“It is dark.” I say, sitting next to her at the head of the bed. She clings to my shoulders.
“Oh! Look! The moon lives in the dark.” I say. “And the stars do, too.” She looks. “Where’s stars?” She asks. “The light in our room is too bright to see them. Can I shut it off?” she says yes, and so we shut it off together to see the stars that sprinkle the sky with dots of white.
“And look.. trees live in the dark. All in rows along the street.”
“Houses!” she says.
“Yes, houses live in the dark.”
“What’s that sound?” She wrinkles her nose.
“Can I open the window to hear?” I ask.
With the window open the sound of crickets fills the room.
“The sound is crickets and peeper frogs.” I say. “They live in the dark and they sing at night. Isn’t it peaceful?”
“Yeah..” she says.
“I love the dark.” I say. She echoes me. “It is my favorite part of the day. It is when we snuggle and when we sleep.”
“Out! Dark!” She says, wanting to go out into the darkness that she had just feared.
So we go out to run barefoot on the grass under the moon and stars and streetlights.
“Goodnight, dark.” We say when we are done. And then we go inside to go to bed.
I did not force her, but she became unafraid nonetheless.
Bravery is something strong. We all want to be strong. It is a powerful thing to be.
There are many paths to many places. I believe firmly that bravery is not something that a child is pushed into, but something that they seize for themselves in a moment of empowerment.