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Bogeyman Be Gone: Reflections on Nyctophobia and Child-Rearing
Imagine you're six years old. Imagine it's late at night. It's dark. You're alone in your room. The barren tree outside your window watches you and taps at the glass, keeping you awake. Under the ethereal moonlight, the gnarled tree trunk takes on the appearance of a menacing face, as the tree's chaotic branches become a mass of knotted, ugly hair. Suddenly there's a swirl of wind. What is that? What can it be? And in answer to these questions, your imagination runs wild.
Throughout the world similar scenes appear in the minds of children every night between wakefulness and sleep. For every sound that goes "bump" in the night, there's a bogeyman. Presented with an effect, the child's imagination seeks a cause. How can you help children to overcome their fear of the dark? How can you help them to develop healthy, reality-oriented self-confidence?
First, it's useful to notice that there are some obvious reasons children - and many adults - are afraid of the dark. Our primary sense, vision, is tuned for daylight. At night we rely far more on our auditory sense. And in darkness, we naturally feel vulnerable, and the feeling of fear drives us to heighten our other senses.
In a state of nature, where dangers could include inhospitable terrain or predators, some fear of the dark is a practical emotion. Our fear heightens our desire to stay in contact with others (since there is safety in numbers) and to sharpen our hearing so as to identify out of the chaos of noise any signals of dangers lurking in the shadows. But what is the role of such fear in the comfort of modern life?
Clearly, fear of the dark has limited value in a world safe from predators. Ideally, a healthy sense of caution is useful in the dark, but fear is not.
Yet many children suffer from nyctophobia: an abnormal fear of the night or darkness. Parents can respond to such fears in a number of ways:
• letting the child sleep in their room
• leaving a night light glowing
• providing a diet and aromatherapy that offer calming effects
• helping the child redecorate the room in a way that avoids human-like shadows from which imaginary monsters might spring
• helping the child to develop self-confidence and trust
Perhaps the best way to respond to a child's fear is to take it seriously by helping the child discuss what it is he or she fears and why. Encouraging a child to identify and name the objects of fear is the first step to conquering the fear.
However, we need to remember that many children's fears are deepened by the characters they encounter in contemporary movies: vampires, werewolves, mummies, goblins, orks, trolls, ghosts, demons, dragons, zombies, etc. These imaginary supernatural demons feed on the child's fertile imagination. When the lights go out at the end of the day, the creatures of the night come out to prey on the vulnerable. Raised on a cultural diet of vampires, werewolves and zombies, it is entirely understandable that so many children suffer from nyctophobia.
Some may argue that a morbid fascination with monsters and other frightening beasts goes hand in hand with childhood. Yet compare today's monster movies to the fairy tales that were the staple diet of children a few generations ago. A quick look at classic fairy tales reveals far fewer monsters than are found in modern movies and TV. Heroes of yore contended with comparatively tame creatures such as the giant, the wolf, the evil sorcerer or sorceress, etc. Okay, there's a dragon or two - but a dragon is too big to hide under the bed or in a closet. Besides, fairy tales seldom describe dragons - or any of their villains - in gross detail.
Well, there is a case to be made that such fairy tales are a better indicator of children's tastes than today's horror films. In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim describes fairy tales as evolved stories, having evolved in the telling from parents to their children, over many generations (with well-liked variations retold to the next generation, and disliked variations abandoned). If it is true that classic fairy tales are light on monsters but rich in symbolism, and that these tales evolved in the telling, then it follows that children may prefer not to be exposed to the gross horror of savage monsters.
Personally, I plan to raise my children to understand the difference between reality (the natural) and fantasy (the supernatural). Don't misunderstand me. They'll grow up reading The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Earthsea, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, and many more wonderful tales of fantasy. And I'm sure their imaginations will revel in these fantasy worlds. But I plan to guide them to discover the characteristics of these fantasy worlds that are transferable to the real world - and those characteristics that are not.
Characteristics of fantasy that are transferable are: heroism, bravery, friendship, honor, integrity, determination, intelligence, wisdom, creativity, and more. Characteristics of fantasy that are not transferable are: dragons, trolls, orks, ghosts, ghouls, goblins, werewolves, vampires, and more.
Notice that the positives are all qualities of character, while the negatives are all concretized embodiments of evil. In other words, the heroes of fantasy stories demonstrate their qualities of character as they do battle against these monsters and villains. But while the same qualities of character can be realized in the real world, the supernatural monsters exist only in the world of the imagination. They are as unreal as flying purple turtles.
This is an empowering thought that is likely to contribute to raising children that are fearless in the dark: cautious but self-trusting, self-confident and certain that the monsters of the movies are as unreal as the Tooth Fairy.
A child alone in a dark room late on a stormy night who hears a scratching and scuttling sound at the window outside and asks, "What is that?" should learn to answer: "It's probably the leaves scratching the window sill. Nothing more . . . I'm tired. Sleepy . . ."
Children whose parents assist them in discovering this way of thinking will sleep soundly through the night - and leave bogeymen, of all varieties, to the storytellers.
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