What role does fear play in parenting? Primitive, biological, and extremely useful, fear is not something I want to discount, but I do think it deserves close examination. Fear is sometimes necessary for survival, but—here the kicker—not usually. The fear response in our brains, the physical structures and chemical reactions, are very, very old. Gavin DeBecker, in his national bestseller, The Gift of Fear, says that true fear is a gift, an intuitive message that should always be heeded. On the flip side, he calls unwarranted fear (also known as worry) a curse—it just doesn’t serve us. A lot of the fear we feel as parents falls into the worry category, though some is gut panic. Then there is the fear we use as parents—is that ever useful? Let’s take a look at both kinds.
We get scared for any number of reasons. A couple of examples: our two-year-old runs into the street or our four-year-old throws a tantrum of shocking vileness and force. When either of these things happens we are no longer thinking well. Also, we are no longer in present time.
Step one is to recognize this. When your amygdala hijacks your prefrontal cortex and floods your body with adrenaline and cortisol, you are no longer a rational human. You are in fight or flight mode. I’m guessing we agree that that’s not the best place to parent from. Remember that your brain has been taken over, your thinking mind is diminished, and your perception of the situation likely skewed.
Step two is to BREATHE. When you breathe, you reconnect to yourself and your body in the present time. When you snatch your child from a busy street you are still imagining them injured or dead, even though that didn’t happen. You have projected yourself into an imaginary future. Sure, that tantrum was awful, but your preschooler did not mean those awful things he said, and will not end up in therapy or prison. I promise. These are tricks a fearful mind plays—an old response to a new situation. In our modern day world, safety is usually restored very quickly. There is no actual need to fight or run, despite what your body is telling you. Breathing will slow things way down and help remind you of this: You are safe.
Step three is to not perpetuate the fear. Here’s where we start to use fear as parents. We swat the child who darted into the road, hoping that pain will scare her into never doing it again. We yell at the four year-old to pull it together, or we separate him in a time-out until he can behave better. Both yelling and time-out are fear-based punishments—the former creates fear of a parent’s anger and the latter brings fear of the withdrawal of a parent’s attention, closeness, and love. (Ironically, a child who has lost control of their emotions and behavior will regulate much more quickly and efficiently with a calm adult near them, rather than being sent away and isolated.)
Punishments of any kind are fear based, and often consequences are just thinly veiled punishments. I had a discussion with a nice gentleman about this recently. In his efforts to convince me of the necessity of enforced consequences, he inquired about my driving habits and noted that I likely drove the speed limit because of the risk of receiving a ticket (consequence!) if I did not. (I often hear the “You wouldn’t work if you didn’t get a paycheck” argument for justifying the use of reward systems with children, but I digress.)
Sticking with the same analogy, here’s what is true: I do not drive crazy fast, not because I could get a ticket, but because I have learned that it is dangerous and stupid. Now, do I never speed? No, I often do drive five or so miles over the speed limit. Sometimes out of absent-mindedness, sometimes because I’m running late. The possibility of receiving a ticket doesn’t actually deter me from this type of speeding. If I see a police officer along the way of course I slow down, because the enforcer of the consequence is near. In this same way, children who are taught to obey out of fear of authority will obey only when the authority is present.
Don’t we want children to be intrinsically motivated to behave well, to have understanding of why they are being guided to behave in certain ways and not in others? Children who are motivated by fear learn to be sneaky to avoid punishment. With fear, the true goal of discipline—to teach—is completely lost. This topic reminds me of a classic Albert Einstein quote, one that epitomizes my quest to elevate parenting beyond a fear-based model: “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”