Just Keeping Everyone Alive Over Here

parenting from fear isn't ideal, but it works

Written by The Editor

When it comes to teaching my kids life lessons, I’m pretty sure I’m doing it a bit differently than the quotes on Instagram say I should. I’m “supposed” to embody a mothering style that’s full of empathy and understanding, and to talk to my children they way I’d like to be spoken to. That sounds nice. In a perfect world, I’d like to be spoken to by Ryan Gosling, in his post coital bedroom voice, but I don’t think that would resonate much with my kids (or be very appropriate).

I’m the kind of mother who ends most of her directives at her kids with, “because you could get really hurt or die.” No soft lessons here, no candy-coated messaging. My two boys are being raised in a world where all edges are sharp, all sidewalks have hidden manholes, and strangers are waiting to steal them away to ungodly places. Maybe it’s a boy thing. Maybe it’s their age. Anyway you slice it, scare tactics are necessary. Like a lot of kids, mine don’t seem to sense danger, and, even when it’s spelled out for them clear as day, they don’t really believe it’s real anyway. So I’m forced to resort to the extreme measures of fear-based parenting techniques. It’s a time-old tradition wherein you scare your kid so shitless that they’ll never want to do the thing that you were worried about them doing in the first place.

Fear worked out pretty well for me, growing up. Or rather, it worked out for my parents and caregivers, who never had to worry about me getting hurt or in trouble, ever. I spent a lot of my childhood absorbing the life lessons my maternal grandmother – who lived through World War II Europe – imparted upon me. During our after school teas, she never uttered a word of her suffering as a young Jewish girl from Austria. Her world, which I absorbed wholeheartedly, was one in which child molesters hung out on every corner of my suburban New Jersey neighborhood (“You just never know”), where leaving the house without a scarf could lead to death, and where having a sip of wine at Passover just once could lead to me spending the rest of my life selling my body on the streets. I was so scared to do anything at all risky that I spent all of high school studying in my room, or drinking tea with my grandma. Everyone was happy!

Today, my 4-year-old runs ahead of me at Duane Reade to go down the steep escalator while I’m still parking the stroller on the main floor. He’s made it a quarter of the way down, his little head disappearing out of my view, when I realize he’s made a solo escape. And it’s not just a little escalator. It’s one of those narrow, steep ones, and I can already picture his face on the news later and all the local women in Brooklyn sobbing about how they “always knew” that escalator would be bad news, and that “it was only a matter of time.”

“Don’t ever go down the escalator without Mommy!” I tell him, once we both safely reach solid ground. I shake him, hard enough that anyone watching might think I – and not the escalator -- am the most dangerous thing in the store. “Do you know what could happen to you on an escalator by yourself?” I walk him through a series of tragic possibilities, most of them ending in maiming, some in death.

“Can we take the stairs up?” he asks meekly, when we’re ready to checkout.

My nearly 7-year-old doesn’t understand why he can’t go into chat rooms with strangers on his role play video game apps. “Because it’s not safe,” I tell him him, to start things off simply. “I’ll be safe,” he says, confidently, puffing his chest out. Before we can get into much more of a debate I cut straight to the chase: “Hon, this is how children get stolen from their families and killed. People pretend to be kids in these chat rooms, but they are really “Bad People” and they are trying to find out where you live so they can steal you and do horrible things to you.” This kind of threat is usually enough to get my son to drop the question about chat rooms, owning an Instagram account, or having his own YouTube channel; but if it persists, I tell him the part about how his internet presence can lead a killer to the location of his whole family. And that our deaths would be all his fault.

Parenting from fear also comes in handy when I want my sons to do something that they don’t want to do, such as walk instead of making me carry them, or to make them eat their broccoli. Sometimes I even flat out lie: “If you don’t walk, your heart will stop, and you’ll die.” “I’ll die, right now, if I stop walking?” my 4-year-old asks, one particular day when my patience is at a pretty low point. I pause, and consider the consequences of my answer, and my desire to not have lower back pain wins out. “Sure. Yes. You’ll die.” And wouldn’t you know it, my son suddenly regains the ability to use his legs.

Scare tactics get me the results I want most of the time (i.e. my kids listening to me, my kids not hurting themselves, my kids being easier for me to handle). I admit, though, it doesn’t always feel so great when I’m employing that technique. I wish I had a different strategy that worked on my kids. Believe me, I’ve tried other, nicer ways of making them, for example, take their feet off the yellow edge of the subway platform as a train approaches. Something tells me though, that if faced with that moment between my kid losing a leg, and being able to save him, my maternal instinct won’t be asking him to kindly step away gently. It would be more like a roar. The maternal instinct is, at its core, a primal one. When we go to extreme measures to protect our young, even if they’re not the most smiled upon, we’re doing what mother’s do best: Just trying to survive another motherfucking day and keep everyone alive.