Now and then my dad reminds me, usually as my kids are imploding from exhaustion, “When kids are tired they’re tired, and when they’re scared they’re scared. You can’t reason them out of either.” True words from a man whose daughter (my older sister) used to shrivel up like a roly-poly if a dog bigger than Lassie appeared on the sidewalk, too paralyzed to beg my dad to scoop her up, which, of course, he would anyway.
Unlike our children, we parents know that not all fears are equal. Some of them (sorry, kids) are rites of passage that sooner or later we’ll force them to endure. That’s always a real-time decision however, and in our family, it usually comes down to the pitch of the cry and the fear factor in the face.
Whether you leap out of your chair for your kid next time he’s scared or crack open another Diet while he slays Goliath on his own is up to you, but here are seven decision-prompting faces every parent will recognize:
7. You’re seriously gonna leave me here?
This face messed us up for years. This happens to new parents whose only son’s screams peel the paint off the walls of the church nursery hallway. It didn’t help that we kept changing up the hallway until we found a church home. Each time, he’d look at us like, “Et tu, Judas?” Once, a coworker of mine who attended one of the churches told me, “You can’t cave. Let them suffer.” At the time I thought, Lady, your type is why he’s scared. But she was right. We gave our first daughter less leeway, and she’s fine. We’ll be throwing little Betsy to the wolves (on Sundays).
6. That proves it, the world really is about to end.
This one pops up when some long-anticipated, glass castle of an idea (like a playmate coming over) suddenly cracks, or during playtime with a kid whose imagination plays differently. At age five you can be diplomatic, but you can’t rewrite Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” Hang in there, kiddo. Your world just collapsed; now go build a new one.
5. Manipulative fear faker face.
Don’t buy this one. It’s not scared. It’s hungry for sugar, or to stay up past bedtime, or to dodge a consequence for calculated evil.
4. Freaked by a friendly.
What parent doesn’t love seeing his or her child’s cartoonish, wide-eyed terror on the same face as an irrepressible toothy grin, following a well-executed pounce from cover? It’s a rush for mom, dad, and cub alike.
3. Am I going to die?
This one: not so fun. Last month my son jumped into the pool for the first time of the season, and for some reason—maybe the shock of its coldness, but who knows (“When they’re scared, they’re scared”)—my son freaked.
I haven’t seen a face like that since my best friend from high school was dangling thirty feet above the pavement from a butter-slick ski rope during the ill-conceived exit strategy of our senior prank. There he swung, at 3 a.m., outside the window of our high school Bible teacher’s classroom—when the whites of his eyes flicked from brave to bloodshot, and seemed to say: Mike, I’m going down. You all are idiots. Especially M or B, who brought the rope. And my silent reply: Yeah, we are idiots. M or B brought the rope. Don’t blame B, he’s a good guy. I hope you don’t die now.
It’s not a good look. In my son’s case, I didn’t want him to remember Dad sipping coffee in that moment, so, smartphone in pocket, I jumped in. Should I have done things differently? I don’t think about it; it’s too expensive.
2. Are you going to kill me?
Kill you? I’ve been trying for months to instill the instantaneous moral compass that just kicked in and which is now scaring the sin out of you. Let’s celebrate: grace with a side of pizza.
1. I want to want this, but right now I’m just freaked.
For daredevils only, or those who wish they were. My two-year-old wants me to carry her toward danger; my five-year-old wants me to tell him about it later. But thanks to their mom, both know to recite Joshua 1:9 when their courage falters: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” The results are unique to each but positive for all.
Good luck, parents; it’s your call. My only advice is borrowed from my old man: the next time you’re watching all the grown-up attributes you have proudly cultivated in your offspring dissolve into a puddle of age-appropriate fear, save your breath; the roly-poly needs scooped.