Fright Free Children

and the Effects of Low-Level Violence

By Merina Balten


Chapter 1: Why we frighten children

  • We frighten children to educate them.
  • We frighten children to keep them safe.
  • We frighten children to keep them on the straight and narrow. (Alfred Hitchcock's father took him to a police station and prison, when he was quite young as a cautionary tale.)
  • We frighten children to amuse ourselves.
  • We frighten children because we can.

Who of us hasn't frightened a child? Those who work with children in any capacity realize at some point how much unlimited control you have as an adult to delight or to frighten, to sweeten or to damn. It takes a lot of inner strength and wisdom to use that power for good.

Once while teaching a kindergarten class as an occasional teacher, I frightened a group of children doing the song "If you're happy and you know it clap your hands." Everyone was happily singing and going around in a circle till we came to the line: "If you're mad and you know it" I must have made such a terrible scowling face that several children spontaneously broke into tears. Surveying the damage, I did what most adults do in these situations, instead of accepting responsibility for what had just happened and dealing with it, I downplayed what was happening and blamed the children for over-reacting. A poor substitute for a solution. Let's just blame the victim.

One of the reasons people give for frightening children is to educate them. Frightening to educate has a very long tradition and there are many thoughtful educators who would introduce frightening material into a child's world judiciously, in an age-appropriate way as a teaching device. This view deserves further discussion. Using Uncle Tom's Cabin for teaching purposes, say, is possible in a post racism environment. So using horror to illustrate certain concepts seems reasonable in a post horror environment. But to use horror indiscriminately as an entertainment, as is now done, or to use the adrenaline rush of fear to motivate slow learners is a violence we can do without. Using horror as an entertainment would be the same as using racist stories as an entertainment.

There are also those who see the presence of horror books in most classrooms and after the fact try to find some pedagogical reason for their use as part of the school curriculum. These arguments in favour of recommending the reading of horror books to children can only offer: "at least they're reading". This really is a last ditch argument for someone who can't think of any other reason that teachers or parents should recommend these to children. Following this argument it would also be fine to provide children with the sex for sale pages of certain easily available magazines, this would certainly pique their interest in reading as well. No?

Another argument in favour of horror books in school is that as violence is so ubiquitous in society and possibly in this particular child's life, it's prudent to provide children with instruction on how to overcome adversity by presenting them with horrible situations. It's true that children need to be taught how to overcome adversity and solve their own problems, but it's not true that this can best be done through the terrifying and the horrible. This argument harks back to the widely accepted thinking that a certain amount of adversity is good for you, toughens you up. This position was actually disproved through further research. What is really good for you is to have to solve problems on your own and not be handed all the answers or all the goodies of life on a platter. That yes, but that the problems you face have to be terrifying or horrible impedes progress and defeats the intent of the lesson. It also leaves a residue of heavy negativity that translates to one's future expectations and possibly leaves a reverberation in the cells of your body - a physical trace is left of the trauma encountered or the fright endured.

Fear blocks learning. The act of learning requires certain conditions to be present. We now know that children who are hungry don't learn well, and there are many programs now trying to address this problem. We also know that a relaxed body and mind are prerequisites for learning. On that premise, being in a state of fear automatically blocks your ability to absorb and integrate new information - again one more reason to discourage frightening material in our classrooms and homes.

Children were the last to be considered after the 9/11 trauma in New York. The documentary "The invisible Girl" (note...) is the story of a then 12-year-old school girl in a school that was close to the Twin Towers. It describes the terror she and her friends felt as they were herded to safety amid crashing bodies and rubble while enduring an incredible stench, barely able to breathe, fearing the worst. Amidst all the huge efforts that followed there were next to no attempts to deal with the huge trauma that the children had endured. This child's behaviour continued to deteriorate till many years later she was finally diagnosed with PTSD and properly treated. Interestingly, the first step in her recovery process was acceptance. Just the simple fact of acknowledgement of what had happened and how she'd felt.

That too needs to be our first step as a culture: to acknowledge what's happened and begin to take our children's emotional reactions seriously, recognizing what we've done.

There are those who claim that a healthy sense of fear is good if it promotes safety: as in making a child fearful of being burned by touching something hot. But this kind of safety education does not need to use fear to accomplish that. A logical instruction is needed for sure, and reinforcement and follow-up of course. Inducing fears is a cheap shortcut to what needs to be a longer, organic process of the digestion and implementation of a new idea. And where possible, natural consequences are the best teachers. If the child leaves her tricycle out in the driveway it might get run over and then there's no more tricycle till she saves up for a new one.

Many religions world-wide have over the centuries developed a way of teaching children which involved frightening them with dire consequences: using for example, the threat of hellfire in the afterlife as a common tool of discipline, as well as threats of punishment in the here and now. Intimidation of all kinds was commonplace at all levels of society. It's time we moved past that now towards a better, kinder world, one where threats and intimidation and frights are not common, a better world where kindness reigns, as well as consideration and good will.

Is the fear of God really the beginning of wisdom? This is a discussion that needs to begin in the churches and synagogues and mosques. Fear was often the starting point for awareness of the sacred, so to teach through beauty and joy has not been our cultural pattern. Perhaps that needs to be reexamined and reconsidered and reworked.

Trust is expecting the best. Fear is expecting the worst. We need now to choose trust over fear.

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