Fear of the Dark

A few weeks ago, my four (and a half, if you’re into that kind of specificity) year-old son sort of decided he was afraid of the dark. I say decided because that was how it seemed from my vantage point. Having never exhibited any such fear before, he announced one day–well, less announced than sort of casually dropped it into a conversation–that he is afraid of the dark. (Incidentally, it was not dark at the time of this proclamation.)

As you may already know, The Dude is in his first year of daily schooling (pre-k). Lately, he’s been picking up little things from (I assume) other kids, like that pink is a girl color and other such bits of worldly knowledge that no one at home is teaching him. So when he said he was afraid of the dark, my first thought was that he was just repeating something he’d heard somewhere–maybe a classmate, maybe a character in a story or a TV show, who knows? After all, he had never shown any misgivings about actual darkness. And with that hasty assumption, I all but forgot about it.

It may have been that same night, but it probably wasn’t, that The Dude actually acted afraid at bedtime. Whereas a week prior he had sat in bed in the dark chattering away and building all sorts of imaginary vehicles with his Duplo blocks, he suddenly seemed apprehensive. I asked what was wrong, and he told me plainly: “I’m afraid… of the dark.”

Here’s my confession, Dear Reader: I didn’t take it seriously. I thought this was some silliness, maybe just an excuse to delay bedtime or keep Ol’ Dad from leaving. I mean, come on. How do you just suddenly become afraid of the dark? Ridiculous.

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Do I look like I have time for silliness?

Slightly more to my credit, however, I at least pretended to take it seriously. He seemed genuinely upset, whatever the reason, and I’m really working on being a kinder, gentler Ol’ Dad. That being the case, I got an extra nightlight, tried it in a couple different spots around the room, and let him choose where he liked it (this is in addition to a multi-colored stars-and-planets projection light already in use); I even switched on the light in his globe to illuminate the constellation map feature for what little extra light this would provide; finally, I offered to take the bed tent down so that some of that extra light might actually get to him. He declined this last measure, but took me up on it the following night.

In addition to these concrete measures to reduce the darkness itself, I thought it important to address the fear itself. It came on so suddenly, if it was real, that maybe there was some event, some small trauma that I had missed, behind it. Or, if it was not real but just a cover for some other concern, maybe I could achieve some degree of uncovering and get an idea how to approach the source.

So, snuggled up close with my little man, I asked him what he was afraid of. I reassured him that even though the dark can be scary, there’s really nothing there to be scared of. I even told him about times when I was scared as a kid, like the time my brother’s Rancor monster Star Wars toy was left on my shelf, and I swear I saw it moving.

Terrifying.

After all that, Dear Reader, I have to admit that I went to my own bed feeling pretty good about myself. Nothing I had done was difficult or particularly taxing to me in any way, nor was it grand or remarkable. But that’s just it. It was just parenting, and it was small and easy but also right–right in the sense that it left me feeling like I had acted as the parent I aspire to be. And the most important part of that was that I listened. Even though my initial reaction was to think that this was some new silliness, I let my son know that he can come to me with a concern, and I will listen and will not just slap a Band-Aid (or nightlight) on it but will also talk him through it and be there for him. What’s more, that support didn’t become coddling or hand wringing. At the end of it, he went to sleep in his own bed with no further incident. On second thought, maybe that’s the most important part, but whatever.

It seems odd, writing about it now, that I should have felt so good about something so small, so basic. But there’s something important in that, too. Why shouldn’t I feel good about it? I’ve written before about how eager we seem to be to be told that we’re doing things wrong, to say nothing of how eager the rest of the world is to tell us. As parents, shouldn’t we celebrate those small victories, those precious moments when we feel that we have truly earned the love we expect our children to give us unconditionally? However small, however easy and expected it was for me, for my son, he went to sleep that night secure in his trust and confidence in me, and that is no small thing.

A brief epilogue: After about two weeks, The Dude asked me a couple nights ago to put the tent back up over his bed, and he hasn’t mentioned being afraid of the dark again since the night I took it down. I still don’t know if it was really a fear of the dark or some other anxiety. After speaking with some coworkers about it, I’m reassured that the sort of sudden onset we experienced is not unusual. Whatever the case or cause, it seems Ol’ Dad has successfully put this one to bed.

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