I remember sitting with the rest of my class on the floor. I must have been about six or seven. I had tried and tried and just couldn’t hold back any longer; I had to go to the bathroom. I raised my hand, like a good girl, and asked to go. No, I couldn’t go, the teacher said, I must hold it. But I really can’t, I said. No, don’t ask again. I won’t forget my fear and shame when I felt the hot wetness growing underneath me.
I wasn’t supposed to go to the bathroom because the teacher was teaching something “very important.” I was supposed to sit and listen despite my need to take care of normal bodily functions. What was so important that I needed to pee in my pants for?
I don’t know. I didn’t know at the time, and I certainly don’t know now.
What I’ll always remember, though, is the fear. And not just on that occasion either. I remember fear of those who made fun of me (and at a small private school, too), fear I wouldn’t win a competition, fear I wouldn’t understand something, and fear that this was what learning was all about.
I recently read a paper put out by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. The paper discusses how science has proven that early exposure to circumstances that produce persistent fear or chronic anxiety can disrupt the developing architecture of the brain, which leads to lifelong consequences. Most people think of child abuse, children of war, or chronic physical illness as producing this type of fear, but I believe one of the most insidious yet devastating producer of fear in a child’s life is his lack of control over his needs and desires.
Most children do not receive the respect they deserve from the adults in their lives. Most children’s lives are very structured, and their learning goals come not from themselves but from their teachers and parents. And no matter how well-intentioned they are, what the child understands is that his curiosity, his interests and his goals for himself are not valued.
There are many ways fear affects a child’s life, but I’d like to look at five different ways fear can prevent learning. These fears are very prevalent in school environments, but can also be found in homeschooling situations, too.
Fear of failure – Most people want to reach for goals, to grow, to learn. But often, very early in their lives, they are told that they are learning something the wrong way, that if they don’t learn what others want them to learn and in the way other’s want them to learn it that they will fail.
Children believe they will fail to receive love and acceptance if they don’t do exactly what others want; they believe they will never be able to provide for themselves if they don’t receive good grades, get into college, or some other harmful myth.
Instead of focusing on what we believe children are doing wrong, we need to focus on what they do right. We need to look at how they are unique and, I believe, created by God to do something only they can do. Instead of pointing out how a child is misspelling something, we should be excited they want to express themselves in writing. Instead of looking at their decision not to attend college as a failure (which often means going into debt for most their adult lives), we should look at their dreams and goals and the amazing things they ARE accomplishing. Let your children know that if something didn’t work they way they wanted, it doesn’t mean they’re a failure; they now have a chance to look at the problem in a new, creative, innovative way.
Fear of ridicule – If a child is in a situation when he’s being made fun of, either by another child or an adult, he cannot concentrate on learning, even if it’s a topic he really cares about. His instincts will keep him on edge; he’s looking to protect himself and all his attention will be focused on that. It doesn’t even have to be an obvious form of ridicule, either. There are subtle ways a teacher can make a child feel he’s a disappointment to her when he doesn’t measure up to her expectations.
Respect each child as an individual. Often the freest child, the one who is least self-conscious and walks his own path in life is most open to ridicule. Our society loves conformity. That is the way the school system is set up; yes, even the vast majority of private schools follow this model, too. Every child of a certain age is in the same grade despite varying abilities and interests. Every child must learn the same things at the same time. Yet, do adults follow this same model? Do we all do the same things at the same time and in the same way? Are schools really preparing children to be self-directed, independent, creative adults? Children need to feel free to be themselves and not be made to feel stupid or a freak for wanting to learn in the way that is best for them.
Fear of no respect – I touched on this in the paragraph above but want to emphasis that everyone needs to have autonomy. We need to feel loved as unique individuals. Even those who have been lead to believe it’s best to follow the crowd can’t quite escape the gnawing feeling that something is wrong, that no one really values their uniqueness and individuality.
The best way I know how to respect children is to treat them like people, not children. I get so tired of many adults I know, even within my own extended family, of talking condescendingly to my kids, who order instead of ask and don’t treat their questions seriously. You’d treat another adult’s opinions and desires respectfully. You’d encourage them to reach for their dreams and support them as much as you could. Do the same for your kids. Don’t let fights about reading, math or another other subject get in the way of your relationship.
Fear of abandonment – Many children get dropped off at school on their first day of kindergarten (or sadly much sooner) in tears. They don’t want to leave their parents. But parents are made to feel that this “separation anxiety” is natural, that their child will “get over it.” I even see this in church nurseries where parents walk away from screaming babies. Yes, most children will stop screaming after a few months, but we must not think it’s because they’ve gotten over their “anxiety.” Children learn to cope with abandonment in different ways; some are just better at hiding it than others.
If you wait until your children are ready to go out on their own, either to outside lessons, sports or even school if they choose, they will be confident and secure. You don’t need to be afraid that you’re “babying” them or that they’ll never want to leave home on their own. The very opposite is true. Most children eventually want to be independent; they want to have responsibility and do things on their own. Follow your child’s lead. If certain circumstances arise where you must be separated, it’s very important to let them know that you wish this wasn’t the case and that you leave them in a place where they’ll be loved and respected.
Fear of caring – This may seem like a strange fear, but some children are afraid to care about things. They know that if they care too deeply about something it will just be taken away from them, so it’s best to remain as detached as possible. You can see how some children pull back from their families this way as they are forced to spend less and less time with them both away from home and even when they are home because of all the homework they are required to do and those ever so important extracurricular activities. But they also stop caring about things they used to love doing, too. I’ve seen this in small children as they grow older. They used to love drawing, or telling stories or climbing, but this gradually fades as they grow older. You might say this is just a part of maturing, but I think something else might be going on here.
Many children have an incredible ability to focus on things they love to do, even with children who are labeled ADHD. But then they are placed in situations where they’re required to jump from topic to topic, activity to activity, often within the space of 30 minutes. Suddenly, they aren’t allowed to focus on what they love, they aren’t allowed to perfect their skills, to improve on their talents. Why should they get excited about drawing anymore? By the time they really get into the picture they’re working on, someone will just take it away and say it’s time to move on to something else.
Let you children care deeply about things and see that they have to time to devote to the things they care about. Don’t let your fears get in the way. They will want to read, they will want to do basic math and they will want to write. How do I know this? Because most kids will want to drive a car someday, they’ll hear about an exciting story and want to read it for themselves, they’ll want to figure how much money they need in how many months to buy that new toy, they’ll want to e-mail and text their friends. They’ll have a real need and desire to learn all the skills they need to succeed in reaching their dreams. But if we don’t give them the time they need, they won’t have any dreams left to care about.
What fears do you have for your child? Do any of those fears overlap with fears your child has for himself?
If you have a minute, please leave me a comment below or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear your thoughts about fear and learning. To get free e-mail updates every time I post something new, just sign your name and e-mail address in the box at the upper-right hand corner of this page. Thanks!
Photo Credit: Gareth 1953Share on Facebook