Fear is all around us these days. But while our current politics may have amped up this emotion, it's one parents have long known well. Is my child keeping up academically with his peers? Will my little girl run into the street when I am momentarily distracted? Will my teenager feel the pull of drugs? Will my sweet child hate me some day? These days we might be adding others, such as, Will my child lose his health insurance? Will bullying become more acceptable? Or even, Will climate change flood our town?
It's crucial, however, that parents learn to manage their own fears (meditation, anyone?). And, more importantly, that we not transfer our fears to our child.
I remember the first time I saw a parent consciously choose fear in an effort to control her little one. I was a new mom taking a stroll with my baby in a nearby mall when a frazzled mother tried to get her 2 year old off the mechanical horse ride. "If you don't come with me, that scary monster around the corner is going to grab you," she told her daughter.
I was horrified watching what I am convinced is a life-scarring, if temporarily effective, tactic. But I have since accepted the reality that all parents--myself included--sometimes resort to one "scary monster" or another to get our way. Our monsters might not be as direct or as extreme, but they can unnerve our child just the same.
It is easy to give in to the pull of fear, reacting as if these worst cases that we fear will become inevitable. But many spiritual teachings posit that fear is the polar opposite of love--when you're feeling one, you're blocked from the other. Whether we are aware of it or not, in every moment we do have the option of choosing which it will be. (Which doesn't mean, of course, that we shouldn't work to change the things we don't want to happen, just that wallowing in fear about it helps no one.)
One of the most insidious fears parents weaponize is to make our child worry that we will love him less if he doesn't do what we desire. We don't have to say those words, but our child picks up on it all the same. In those moments, we not only deprive him of his connection to his highest and best self--which is, after all, pure love--we deprive ourselves of it, too.
Of course, it's not practical to think you will never feel fear about your child. My daughter clung to me like Saran wrap for several years, causing me to fret that she'd never learn to be independent. (Turns out she has a horrible sense of direction and was sticking to me to keep herself from getting lost. Needless to say, she eventually let go.) My son had me terrified that he would fail the eighth grade, because he mentally shut down and stopped doing his work midway through the year. (He's now getting his master's degree in computer science from an elite university.)
Fear is an emotion that I believe deserves only a minuscule place in our mind. If our preteen asks to spend the evening in a dangerous part of town, we might legitimately worry and say no. But when our preschooler needs to spend night after night cuddled in our bed, our third-grader no longer wants to go to grandma's for the weekend (triggering our fear that grandma will be furious), or our kid fails an "important" test, we must open our heart to love.
Peggy O'Mara, the founding editor of the nurturing magazine Mothering, believes that this is the heart of parenting. "There is really only one decision that underlies all other decisions concerning our children," she once wrote in an editorial. "This decision is whether we will choose love or fear; whether we will accept or resist the situations that happen with our children; whether we will choose to cooperate or to be adversarial with our children."
In other words, whether we can look even the most unsettling parenting situation in the eye and not summon the monster around the bend.
Meryl Davids Landau is the author of the new book Enlightened Parenting: A Mom Reflects on Living Spiritually With Kids, from which this was adapted.