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Scary-Not-Too-Scary

What is it about humans that we actively seek out “negative” emotional states for pleasure? We sometimes want to be angry (or we wouldn’t seek out partisan political opinions), we sometimes want to be sad (entire genres of music are dedicated to this) and most pertinent to what I want to talk about, we sometimes want to be scared.

Horror Movies

I’ll admit, I love a good horror movie. Actually, I love the bad ones too, but for different reasons. I’m a fan of atmospheric horror and lingering dread more than a startling “jump scare,” and I will watch anything that has a consistently creepy vibe Image result for the changelingrather than going for gross-out stuff (not that there isn’t a place for body horror or violent “slasher” stuff, just that it’s not my favorite flavor of horror). In particular, I love a good ghost story and have for as long as I remember getting a bit of joy from being frightened.

More Than Just A Movie

Horror films have an added resonance for me. When I was a teenager learning to cope with a mood disorder, I self-medicated with horror movies. I’ve given a lot of thought about why I found horror as a genre comforting when I was depressed, and the best I’ve come up with was two-fold.

Although you are meant to identify with a protagonist in a horror movie, character depth is usually pretty shallow. You don’t care TOO much about a character in a horror movie because they rarely give you a reason to, but also because you know not to get too attached to anyone in that sort of film. That means that these sorts of films can be passively observed; sometimes it is refreshing to be a neutral observer when it is hard to feel much of anything emotionally. The superficiality of a bad horror movie can actually be an asset because the bad stuff is happening to someone else that you are completely disconnected from. On the flip side, when a horror movie is really effective and building tension and a good scary vibe… well, hey, at least you are feeling SOMETHING. When depressed, getting a good adrenal kick due to quality filmmaking is a reminder that you are alive.

Not Everyone Shares My Interests

My wife has no interest in horror as a genre, and that has never been an issue in our relationship. There are exceptions (we both really like a grandiose gothic tale either in literature or in movies like Crimson Peak and The Woman In Black, Image result for crimson peakwhich also hit my sweet spot by being haunted house movies), but by and large I’m on my own when it comes to scary movies. She knows that I like to watch horror movies when it begins to feel like autumn and when I am feeling under the weather (either physically or emotionally) and leaves me to it. However, I have a not-so-secret hope that at least one of my kids will eventually become a horror movie fan, just so I can have someone to watch these movies with.

My daughter, age 2.5 at the moment, is experimenting with being scared. She’s been doing this for a while, and it is fascinating. She’s testing her tolerance and pushing the boundary a little at a time. By far the most-watched episode of her favorite show, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, is the one where Daniel sleeps over at his friend Prince Wednesday’s house and is spooked by a weird shape on the wall which turns out to just be a shadow of a friendly stuffed animal. Image result for daniel tiger sleepover]The song that goes along with the episode is called “See What It Is, You Might Feel Better,” which is great advice for a toddler who is feeling apprehensive, but terrible advice for any protagonist in a horror film.

My daughter asks for this episode specifically (“I want to see Daniel Tiger get scared!”) because she relates to the feeling of unease and the reassurance when it turns out to be okay. Being scared a little bit while at the same time knowing you are safe is essential for kids to overcome anxiety. Building up a tolerance for scary things makes the world a little less scary overall.

Helping Kids Be Scared

I want to make it clear that I’m not advocating for showing horror movies to children. Kids have plenty of things that make them scared already, from a darkened room to imaginary monsters. And remember that some things that kids find scary are totally innocuous to adults. My daughter recently revealed that she was a little freaked out by a broad desert in a movie we were watching. Why were the sand dunes scary? Who knows?

We’ve given her opportunities to set her own comfort level with fear, Image result for the lion king hyenasgradually easing her into things. For a while, The Lion King was her favorite film, and we dutifully fast forwarded past the stampede scene and accompanying death of Mufasa. Sometimes (but not always) she wanted to see the scene where the hyaenas chase Nala and Simba, so we had our finger on the remote for that one too. It was up to her to gauge how brave she was feeling and how scared she wanted to be.

Image result for te fiti fireI’m not great with repetitive viewing (unlike my daughter), so I was relieved when Moana replaced The Lion King as the movie of her heart. By the time that had happened, she’d built up enough fear tolerance that she wanted to watch all the scenes with the lava monster, and didn’t even bat an eye at the giant crab or the coconut-monster pirates. We knew there was a risk that she would react poorly to any one of those scenes, and we’d find out the hard way with nightmares, but we lucked out that time. When asked, she will sometimes say that the scary part is her favorite, but in fairness, she’s been known to say that about any part of Moana she is currently watching or has just seen.

Mistakes Were Made

We’ve made a few missteps, but I think that an element of trial and error is ultimately necessary to finding the things that are in that perfect zone of scary-not-too-scary. Image result for paranormanMy wife showed her ParaNorman once, which is a great film and has a great lesson about celebrating being different and weird. It also has a lot of zombies, ghosts and a witch.

Before you judge us too harshly, I should state in my defense that this kid loves the aesthetics of Halloween. Last October, she was seen running around a Michael’s craft store picking up miniature gravestones, skulls, bats and assorted ominous objects and screaming “Halloweeeeeeeeen” in a jubilant voice. It was on par with Christmas in terms of holiday excitement, so I think the thought was that a movie that just, sort of, extended those themes would be okay.

While the kid didn’t freak out, we got the feeling that we’d pushed her too far. She spent most of the movie asking, “what’s going to happen?” which we interpreted as a request for the thrills to be mitigated just a little bit by predictability. Also, ghosts and zombies are hard to explain to a kid with no conception of death. We haven’t revisited this movie, and consider it a close call that we narrowly avoided.

I almost made the same mistake with Kubo and the Image result for kubo and the two strings sistersTwo Strings. Luckily, I recognized my horrible error pretty much right away. Nope. Sorry. If there’s a scene that I find unsettling, there’s no way I’m letting my toddler see it. Great movie, but not anywhere close to “scary-not-too-scary.”

On Monsters

My daughter talks about monsters a lot.

She will tell me about a monster in an empty room, and sometimes actually have authentic trepidation about going into a room she thinks has one. I, of course, have seen enough monster movies to know that if I assure her that there are no such things as monsters, I have doomed myself to be killed by one. Image result for groverRather than try to fight against her (extremely active) imagination, we shift the conversation by telling her that any monsters she encounters in our house are definitely friendly. This ties in nicely with Sesame Street, where the monsters are all cute and fuzzy and extremely friendly.

On the spectrum of scary-not-too-scary, she’s setting up a scenario for herself where there is something concrete that is scary (a monster in mommy and daddy’s room) and then asking us to help provide supports for coping with it. Those supports include us reminding her that any monsters in our house are friendly, that there are parents who will keep her safe, and that monsters are only temporary.

We’ve had some pretty good success with this policy, which has led to her branching out and extrapolating a bit. Yesterday, she told me that she wished there was a “little monster in my room that would play with me.” We call that a younger sibling, honey, and you’re in luck.

Dragons

Dragons hold a similar place in her personal mythology. She’s fascinated by them, but a little afraid of them at the same time. When she was younger, she’d tell us she was concerned about dragons on the ceiling, and we were confused by this oddly specific fear (accompanied by her adamant belief that a robot lived on our roof). One day, we were at the puppet theater where her grandfather likes to take her and noticed a large Chinese dragon puppet high up on the wall near the ceiling: mystery solved.

Image result for dragons love tacosMy daughter’s concerns about dragons have shifted over time. Initially, she was worried that a dragon would come and eat all of her books. More recently, she’s been anxious about dragons nibbling on her toes. And in the past few weeks she’s been using her dragon toy to playfully work through her concerns about the consumption of her parents and little brother at the hands of flying reptiles.

Playing With Fear

This may seem complicated, but her love/fear relationship with dragons and monsters is pretty emblematic of the tumultuous emotional work she’s putting into recognizing where she is safe, where she is not, and when it is okay (or even fun) to be afraid. We’ve had to make sure that the adults in her life know that sometimes she will say that she is scared when she is, in fact, playing at being scared to see what it feels like.

And by and large, our little girl is pretty confident. She may be a little shy with strangers and new situations, but she has no problem being left in the care of trusted adults. I suspect that working through her fear is a part of establishing this confidence. So we push on with baby steps, letting her experiment with what makes her scared and what feels safe, knowing that there will inevitably be missteps where she goes a little too far and freaks out, hoping that the trauma won’t be lasting.

In The Meantime

My daughter may be comfortable playing with fear, with playing with toys to work through her fear of monsters or dragons, with hearing stories of Star Wars droids so that robots aren’t mysterious and creepy anymore, with enjoying media that is probably a little too exciting for her, and going down slides on the playground that make her parents nervous. On the other hand, I’m terrified. I’m terrified that I’m not a good parent. I’m scared that she’s going to get hurt, that she’s going to have nightmares, and that she’ll stumble onto something that she’s not ready for. And this is not an unreasonable fear: recently, at a science museum, she played with a simulation of the life cycle of a star and then was genuinely upset when the star died. I certainly didn’t expect to have to explain life and death to a 2 year old in the context of a giant ball of gas, but I also didn’t expect her to be afraid of the desert.

I mean, the desert… what’s that about?

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Babies At Work

I bring my infant son with me to work. Just like I brought my (now 2 year old) daughter to work when she was an baby. It’s the single best parenting decision I ever made, and it makes me realize how the modern world has driven a wedge between parents and their children.

When my daughter was born, we were wholly unprepared for her arrival. I mean, to some extent all first time parents are unprepared, but we hadn’t really sorted out really basic things like where she was going to school. We assumed, naively, that you pick the daycare or preschool that best suits your child, as opposed to the reality that you choose your daycare or preschool before your child is even conceived.

This isn’t hyperbole. My brother and sister-in-law just had their first kid too, and at our advice they started their child care search really early: there were waitlists that were longer than 12 months. Given that human gestation is only 9 months, that means there were parents putting strictly hypothetical babies on a waiting list to get into school. When my nephew was born, there was still no room for him in any of the places they’d looked, so even with much more foresight than us, they are still in a similar boat.

Oh, Sweet Naiveté

My wife and I innocently thought that we’d handle all of this when the kid was a few months old. Because we were idiots. Sure enough, there wasn’t room for our daughter, and even with a little insider pull/nepotism due to my mother having been on the board of one of the schools, they were only able to put my daughter on a waitlist with a rough estimate of when a spot would open up for her to drop into.

We scrambled to figure out a short-term solution to our child-care problem. We looked at nanny situations, we toured less-reputable daycare facilities (by our standards, anything that was “for profit” and in a strip mall was less reputable), we relied on family to fill in for us and ultimately my wife worked from home for some of it so she could look after the kid at the same time. My mother took the baby for one day a week… and I took my infant daughter with me to teach high school twice a week.

I worked at a small independent school at the time. It’s the kind of place that used to get the label as an “alternative school,” with all the baggage that implies. I taught a wide array of fascinating kids between the 9th and post-12th grade. Some of them had mental health issues, some had unaddressed learning disorders, others had substance abuse problems, and a lot of them were just too joyously, wonderfully, gleefully weird to succeed in a big high school. The school was, and is, a truly wonderful place to rediscover a real love of learning and figure out who you really are. Into this celebration of teenage individuality, I introduced a 2 month old…

…and it was AWESOME!

How It Worked

My classes were small: under 10 students in a small room that might’ve at one point been a bedroom or a Victorian-style parlor. To my daughter, who was just getting into the developmental stage of recognizing and locking on to faces, it was heaven. As I lectured about the fall of the Roman Empire, she looked out at all the attentive teenage faces and studied each one intently until the vibration of my torso against her back slowly lulled her into sleep.

                   

But the benefits weren’t limited to my daughter. During the “Community” period between my first and second classes, I’d change her diaper and feed her a bottle, and gradually students began to ask if they could help. Community class became the time when my high school students could interact with her, and although my daughter was always sociable with most people, she did develop favorites. Even better, I was heartened to see that a number of teenage boys wanted to participate as well. I strongly feel that as a society, we encourage “maternal” behaviors in young women without asking our young males to explore the same.

The students referred to my daughter as “Professor Baby,” and I credit her current ease in social situations with her early indoctrination to the “village” or “tribe.” She came to trust a number of young adults and they in turn learned about how to care for a baby. When those young adults grow up and have children of their own (some of them sooner than I’m comfortable with), they will have a better understanding of parenting. It was a win-win situation.

Moving On And Growing Up

Eventually, of course, we found a daycare situation that we loved for the kid. There was a bit of sadness about her leaving the high school, and some jokes about her “graduating” to daycare. She got her own page (alongside my own) in the school yearbook and she slowly phased out of being attached to me for 4 hours of the day.

She’s been back to the high school a few times. She clearly doesn’t remember the individual students who used to hold her or feed her a bottle, but she does warm up to them quickly and smile at them. She also looks around the school itself like it’s familiar but she can’t figure out why. It’s deep into her core programming: she knows that people besides her parents care for her and look out for her, and also probably that daddy talks a lot.

Second Verse, Same As The First

Fast forward two years. I’m not working at the cool funky high school anymore. I work in a brand new government building alongside the local department of Housing and Human Services, Child Protection Services, and various social services that help with employment. I help people who have fallen through the cracks get a second chance at either a better job or a shot at college by getting their high school equivalency. While my wife was pregnant, the county announced that they were implementing a program where new parents could bring their children to work on a limited basis.

 

It’s a completely different environment, and I don’t know how much my clients get out of me bringing my kid with me to work (seeing how most of them have kids of their own… incidentally, the largest demographic I work with is “women who dropped out of high school to have a baby”), but I get to spend time with my seven month old who is in the “smile at anything” phase. As a father, I’ve had a lot less time to be the sole parent who my baby relies on, so spending all day with my little guy twice a week is great for making me feel like I’m providing for him. It’s bonding that, honestly, I hadn’t really had previous to this program. Maybe I’m projecting, but I get the feeling like my son knows me and trusts me more. I’m probably projecting.

One thing I know for sure I’m not fabricating is that my co-workers talk to me more when I have a kid. Yeah, I know it’s an excuse to interact with the baby strapped to me, but there has been a marked upturn in work interactions since I started bringing the kid with me to work. My learning lab is off the beaten track, and so it’s easy for me to be antisocial and only interact with my clients (I’m known as “that quiet guy” at work, which would surprise my friends, as well as former students and colleagues, I’m sure). There’s a degree of, “my eyes are up here, Ladies” when I’m wearing a baby on my chest, but there have been more genuine conversations prompted by my baby in the last few months than in the previous year combined.

              

Getting To The Point

The reason I chose to write about my two experiences bringing my babies to work isn’t just so I can set up jokes about the time that a female co-worker said, “hey, who’s that handsome man” and I thought they were talking about me rather than the baby I was wearing. It’s that I think there is something fundamentally wrong with a father NOT having this kind of bonding with their children.

One of my coworkers on the first day I brought my son to work was an asylum-seeker from South Sudan, a single mother who was forced to leave two children behind at a refugee camp, and also a former client of mine who finished her high school equivalency and started attending community college in a language she doesn’t have full fluency in (I’m impressed with her and you should be too). One of my other colleagues conveyed a conversation they had with her while she stood transfixed while watching me play with my child. Apparently, it was unheard of for men to take any sort of interest in the care of very young children in her home country at all. She was amazed and fascinated by the demonstration of paternal infant care, and I can’t imagine her culture is alone in dissuading men from taking an active hand in the rearing of their young kids.

In fact, I’d be willing to speculate, based on nothing more than some general undergraduate history, sociology and anthropology courses, that infant care is socially and historically almost always a woman’s domain. It makes sense: babies rely on their mothers for sustenance which creates a bond unique among humans. Psychologists have stated that the connection between mother and newborn is akin to being one entity. So where does a father factor in?

I don’t have an answer. All I know is that when I was able to take my infant children and care for them on my own for a stretch of time through bottle-feeding, I cemented a bond with them that maybe other dads are missing. By being the “lone parent” for just a little while, I felt a tighter bond with my kids than I had before. It was a potent enough feeling that until I replicated the experience with my younger one, I was worried that I didn’t feel appropriately strong feelings for him. I had felt this connection with my eldest kid, and it wasn’t immediately present in my younger one when he was born; it took becoming the primary parent (even just for a little while) for me to feel like I was an important part of his infant life.

If I’m right, and human history has deprived men of the chance to bond with their infant children, then it is a grievous evolutionary misstep. I may not be totally comfortable with my role in my job, or in my academic career, or even in my adult social circles, but I have a firm grounding of where I stand with my kids, and I attribute it largely to having been able to spend a great deal of time as the primary caregiver for them as infants.

Conclusion

Fathers, if you can take your kids to work, I encourage it. If you can’t, I implore you to take your kids on your own for father-child adventures; to the park, to the store, to hangout with your friends, wherever and whenever. Early childhood development is essential and far more influential than you may know. So the earlier you can establish yourself in your child’s life, the better. You can break a socio-historical pattern that has excluded you from your kids’ lives, so do it.