My youngest starts a good fifty percent of everything he says with variations of “why?” or “what if?”. At almost four, he’s still at that stage where nothing’s a given; where there’s no clear line between what is real and what he reads in his (older siblings’) books or sees in his (older siblings’) films and TV programmes. A solemn weighing-up of my explanation of clouds or the length of the summer holidays will be followed by a puzzled query as to “how do skeletons kill you?” or “where do dinosaurs go at night?”, both requiring just as sober and extensive an answer.
He knows already, as sadly he must, that there are real dangers out there. I’ve been sketchily but brutally honest about the possible consequences of running into a road or wandering off or trying to play with a socket. He relishes washing his hands as a small battle against bugs (the chance to battle is not to be missed). It’s only to be expected that on a diet of Super Hero Squad and Star Wars – hell, even the good, old fashioned, lethally innocuous fairy tales – he will perceive enemies and threats (and potential battles) round every corner where there is no greater hazard than an overheated imagination. I hold his hand for now, literally and metaphorically, but only he can learn, in time, the phantoms which are real and the lines which he’s not prepared to cross.
I read Frank Furedi’s excellent piece in the Independent today, on paranoid parents and the independence we deny our children. Before I became a mother, I was categoric in my certainty that I would not become one of these namby-pamby types who perceive a bogeyman in every shadow. Like all the best resolutions, it was one I was fated to break. I struggle, now, with giving my children the independence I know that they need to develop into self-reliant teenagers and adults. I am happiest when they are in my full sight; miserably uneasy when I grant them some small measure of freedom to walk ahead or play with friends in the next street.
It isn’t that I think the bogeymen lurk, just that I let them go against a constant backdrop of “what ifs?” not unlike those of my three year old. What if someone drives too fast round the corner? What if they trip and fall into the road? What if they get caught up in the fun of the game with older children and stray too far from home?
To some extent, Furedi’s “Paranoid Parent” has probably always existed. What is more natural than to fear for your child, whether in the face of supernatural demons or all-too-human monsters? What, really, is the difference between reluctantly conceding to the demands for a mobile and murmuring an enchantment to divert the Evil Eye? I do wonder, though, if we are becoming more paranoid because we are not so much losing our perspective as having it distorted.
We gorge on small, everyday tragedies. Magazine covers, the sofas of daytime TV shows, our Facebook and Twitter timelines are filled with battles won against the odds and victims of one-in-a-billion catastrophes. Whether sickness or accident or malevolence, it’s hard to weigh the statistics when the vanishingly-rare likelihood of ill has a name and a winsome photo and a story to be told. It’s difficult truly to believe that something is almost certain not to happen when you feel that you have come to know the person to whom it did; when they, or those who were left behind, recount what went wrong, what they would have done differently, and exhort others not to make the same mistake.
No wonder we try to tidy ourselves into security. No wonder we fret over any loose ends or uncertainty, trained, as we are, to spot the fatal flaw in a story we read over and over from the starting point of unhappily ever after. We feel that the script’s ours to write, ours to navigate safely around all the pitfalls we’ve been warned of.
I can confidently tell my three year old that skeletons aren’t alive and that he doesn’t need to be worried about the giganotasaurus. Convincing myself that the worst isn’t inevitable? That takes more doing.