When I was a little boy, only around four or five years old, we lived near a river in Colorado. My brothers and sister would swim in the river, sometimes diving off the bridge that was near our home. In order to keep me away from the river, my mother told me that there were alligators living in the water. Okay ma, there are alligators in the river.
We would take my dad’s work clothing into town to the laundromat. Now, I remember this day very clearly. We pulled up in our old blue truck, my Orange Crush clutched in my little hands. The day was warm and clear. Next to our parking spot was another truck with a very old man in the driver’s seat. As he got out, I noticed that he was missing an arm. I think I asked my mom why the man’s arm was gone. She said, “Well, that’s what happens to people who go swimming in the river.” I was shocked by this.
A few days, perhaps weeks went by, and mom decided that we would go swimming with my brothers and sister. She’d got a float tube for me. I don’t really remember much about the lead up, but as they pushed me out into the river, I remember clearly that I was terrified. I screamed and yelled to be taken back to shore. I remember that they were laughing as they took me back to the bank of the river.
I love the water, but to this day, if I’m in a river or lake, I can only swim for so long before feelings of panic begin to build up.
My mother, to this day, is terrified of strangers. I remember the first trip I went on with my parents to a big city. I was just ten or so. I was excited and curious, peering about at all the people, buildings and busy streets. As we pulled up to an intersection, the car next to us had some Hispanic people inside. My mother noticed that I was looking at them. She said, in all seriousness, “Don’t make eye contact with them! They will shoot us if you do!” This theme is recurrent in my childhood. Strangers are bad. Period.
Years ago, I asked my mom why she told me that story about the alligators. I explained that I couldn’t swim for more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time without anxiety. She laughed, saying that she was just keeping her little boy safe. I really didn’t know what to say about that. I never really asked any more questions about it.
I have been deconstructing my upbringing, trying to find the ‘roots,’ as it were, to my problems. When describing my childhood to people, I would say that my parents left me to my own devices for the most part, making it sound as if I was afforded some kind of special privilege. Shedding the light of my current knowledge onto the events of my childhood, I was rather shocked to find that I was being neglected. I never really thought about it in quite that way, but it was quite the shock when I realized that.
Not that I blame them too much. They did what we all do – the best we know how. Apparently, the best my mother knew was to saddle her children with neuroses. The litany of fright that my mother used as a catechism to ward off harm, simply made it extraordinarily difficult for me to make any friends. After all, making eye contact could be deadly.
I make a conscious effort to not instill irrational fears into my children. Caution and skepticism about strangers, yes. Strangers as a likely source of murder, no. Caution and respect for water, yes. The lurking places of alligators …well, not where I live.
People, please don’t make your kids scared of life. The things that kids get from the adults in their lives, stick with them, right or wrong. We are omnipotent and omniscient to them. Guide them with wisdom, not fear!