The only thing we have to fear…

My 3 year old, Jane,  has a very equivocal relationship with animals. She is obsessed with them,  constantly pretends to be one – some days a bunny, others a pussy cat, a dolphin or a turtle – and she desperately wants us to buy a pet. When she grows up she is apparently going to have a farm, with very definite (but nonetheless changeable) numbers of particular animals – heavy on the horses, cats, and fluffy chicks (who never grow up), with occasional outbreaks of hippos and snow leopards. And no-one ever gets eaten.

At the same time, though, her preferred animal is one who doesn’t actually move. It’s possible that she has spent too much time with soft toys and not enough with real creatures, but even a rabbit can alarm her by hopping unexpectedly, or just sniffing at her toes.

bunny rabbit

Dogs who jump are terrifying, and any moving dog causes her to climb the nearest safe adult until she is safely at the top of Mount Parent, and then she will loudly demand the removal of said monolith to a safer, entirely dog-free location.

There is this incredible tension between her intense interest in – and affection for – animals, and her overwhelming fear of them. Whenever she gets regular contact with an animal, she grows more confident, and gradually removes it from the list of scary things. This fascinates me, because it strikes me as a beautiful parable, even for adults. We all suffer, to some degree, from fear of the unknown. We can try to avoid it and allow the fear to grow in its own dark cave, or we can face our demons, drag them kicking and screaming out into the light of day, and watch them evaporate.

So often when we confront our fears they prove groundless. Although they seem impossibly hard and substantial when they lurk in the darkest recesses of our mind, exposed to the light they can disappear in a moment, like ice cubes on hot bitumen,  leaving barely a sign that they had ever existed.


Jane’s fear of animals extends to almost anything that moves. She’s terrified of flies,  the tiniest of ants, and moths. She’s fairly happy about butterflies, but I suspect that’s because none have ever tried to land on or near her.  Her perception of the animals bears no relationship to actual facts about them. You can argue endlessly that possums only eat fruit, for example.

Jane: “The possums might eat me!!”

Me: “Possums only eat fruit. Are you a banana?”

Jane (scornfully): “Of course not!”

Me: “Then you’re fine.”

Jane: “But they might eat me!!”

(repeat ad nauseam)

We can scoff, but how many of our own fears are even less logical than that? I think we could all learn something from Jane’s example, and start facing our fears. Sure, she needs someone to hold her hand when the bunny twitches his terrifying nose, but we all need someone to hold our hand sometimes. What’s the bet that many of our own fears will turn out to be fluffy and harmless too?


8 thoughts on “The only thing we have to fear…

  1. Snap…Little B constantly hounds me for a puppy / dog (excuse the pun). But when faced with a dog (like a labrador) is scared of them. But he tells me everyday how nice he will be too a dog, how much he will look after it, how he will play with it…hmm….I’m sure he does want one and even surer the urge for a puppy is that its small but still.

    I’m sure it stems from a dog jumping on him when he was little.

    But I so hear where you are coming from LOL.

    1. lindamciver

      Yay for soft toys, eh? :-) I guess they’ll get over it when they get older. Jane didn’t have any dogs jump on her when she was little – I think it’s a self-reinforcing thing, each time she is startled her brain gets a little bit more convinced that they are scary, even if the startle was unwarranted. Which makes me wonder how often we do that to ourselves?

  2. Joe

    Heh. My 4yo loves animals as well. eg when she was two:

    (She poked her tongue out repeatedly… to talk to the snake who was obviously doing the same to talk to her.)

    And the first time we took her to the “Aussie backyard” talk at the zoo, she tried to put her hand in the jar to pat the redback. Being in Sydney we’ve had to repeatedly reinforce the possible hazards of unidentified (and some identified) spiders.

    She often asks to visit “the butterfly house” on weekends (a general Wildlife Australia exhibit in Sydney city with reptiles, nocturnal animals, kangaroos and koalas, and a walk-in butterfly enclosure). But whenever we get there, she refuses to actually go in to the butterfly enclosure itself because the fluttery butterflies startle her.

    Fears from first experience, indeed jumping to conclusions from a sample of one and sticking to them in the face of several subsequent counter-examples, are a natural consequence of neural network function. Works great for survival though … if you manage to survive a ferocious animal or nasty berry once it’s a good rule of thumb to avoid re-testing the “danger” hypothesis.

    A few pre-wired responses help too, like a natural response to being at dangerous height which some people mistake for phobia or vertigo.

    1. lindamciver

      patting a red back! Yike!! Your daughter clearly has no fear.

      Certainly responses like these are crucial to survival. But sometimes they get in the way of life, too. Psychologically, these fear responses are self-reinforcing, so it gets worse each time she is startled by a bouncy bunny. And it gets better when she pats her cousins’ bunny, but the exception is critter-specific. She’s fine with hugsy, but other bunnies have to work their way up. :)

      1. Joe

        Indeed. Experimentally, once your brain has a “bad” tag attached to something it takes multiple good experiences per bad experience you’ve had to “outweigh” it. And if you’ve got “pain” or “danger” attached to something it can be more like ten to one… ten good experiences for every bad experience you ever had.

        Conscious reimagining can help as a “good” experience if you’re trying to “fix” something … every time you have a “good” experience spend the next few days re-reliving it, and spend time inventing similar experiences and role-playing them in your mind. These aren’t as strong as a new “real” experience but some bits of your brain still don’t know the difference. (The same bits are why I avoid certain types of movies like the plague. Sure, my conscious brain knows fiction from reality, but vision + sound is pretty powerful “experience”.)

        Probably feeds into that “ten praises for every criticism” idea in parenting too. (Praises need to be specific, and realistic etc. etc. etc.)

      2. lindamciver

        That’s true – and it’s possible to do that with kids by reminding them of the good experiences over and over. My sister did the reverse with our little one when she was 2 – we had been to a “Wild Action” party where there were lots of Australian animals, including a crocodile, which we all held. Its snout was all bandaged up, of course, but my sister was talking to our little one about it and asking leading questions. She asked “Did it bite you on the nose?”, to which our little one nodded (she was nodding at everything at this point), and forever after she has told people that the crocodile at the wild action party bit her on the nose! Suggestible creatures, we are! :-)

        I like the connection with the praise/criticism thing. Very true.

  3. The contrast between what we imagine to be true and what is true is often a bit of a shock isn’t it? I get the same thing with our children when they think they want to go and stay over-night with friends…really, really want to but when it comes to the crunch it’s a whole different story.

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