If asked, "Do you frighten your children?" most parents would reply with an indignant denial. Yet it is easy for the kindest parents unwittingly to terrify their children.
Such fears cause unhappiness at the time and can have a permanent effect on the personality, later producing a timid and diffident adult afraid of plunging into life and wholly unable to enjoy it.
We are all guilty of talking about our own affairs when children are in the room. Your small daughter may seem absorbed in dressing her dolls, but she does not miss much of the adult conversation going on around her. Conversation about war, illness, death or financial difficulties, overheard and only half understood, can fill a child with unnecessary fears.
Needless to say, no child should listen to quarrels between his parents. D.H. Lawrence was one of those whose childhood was made wretched in this way, and his frightening experience find expression in many of his novels, and in that very moving poem "Discord in Childhood."
Another way in which we can frighten our children is by suggestion. If mother fears storms, so will her small son. If his nurse is obviously afraid of walking through a field of cows, the child will be the same.
If a child's parents let him see they are anxious about his calorie-intake, his weight or his tendency to chills, these fears, too, will be passed on to the child, and he will stand a good chance of growing up into one of those adults who are worried about their health and afraid to take risk.
Conversely, parents can deliberately use these powers of suggestion to banish their children's fears.
Some mothers tell their children, "you will love going to the dentist", and paint a pleasant picture of rides in the dentist's chair, and coffee in a cafe afterwards.
This is a useful sort of a suggestion if the child is not hurt, but if the dentist does happen to touch a nerve, the suggestion will be for ever rejected, and the child will have gained a far more serious fear in the loss of faith in his mother. The best suggestion to make when going to the dentist is, "It might hurt a little, but we know you are brave."
Another basis for a child's fears can be a lack of security. He may fear the loss of his parent's love. It is cruel for a mother to say, "If you are naughty, mummy won't love you".
She can make it quite clear that she does not always love the way he behaves, and expects some improvement there, but the fact she loves him remains unalterable. If a child feels unloved and unsafe in his own family, he will be a prey to all kinds of fears.
Sometimes a child's fears may seem trivial to a grown-up, but it is a mistake to underestimate their importance. To a child the difference between reality and imagination is confused, and the bogeys and bears that wait in the shadows are very real to him. No amount of prosaic, logical, brisk, grown-up reasoning can convince him otherwise.
As it is usually the clever, imaginative children who have such fears, the remedy is to occupy their minds elsewhere, and give their active brains plenty of scope for work at school and interesting occupations at home. It is for the most part true to say that fears in a child will permanently cramp his personality, and so limit his usefulness and happiness as an adult.
On the other hand, some fears are not undesirable and have their uses. If you were asked my original question, "Do you frighten your children?" a good parent might have replied, emphatically, "Yes". She might go on to say, "I have deliberately made them afraid of prussic acid and steaming kettles". And so is running between parked vehicles a danger to them.
As a child grows older, we must not let him lean on his parents to the subjugation of his own initiative. He wants to stand on his own feet, so parents have to teach him to use his own judgement.
In other words, parents now actually teach him fear. This fear is not irrational panic, but fear in its controlled form, which I call caution. The child has to have some appreciation of danger for his own protection. We do not need to tell him terrifying stories about AIDS and malaria but to teach him sensible protections.
This way children are taught not to touch fire, live wires, turn on the gas, climb out of high windows, strike matches, hide in railway tunnels, or go away with strangers. They learn to be careful of traffic, to keep their bicycles in good working order, to be aware of dangerous animals, and to respect tides and currents when swimming.
In quite another way fear can provide a very real benefit. It can be a useful emotional outlet.
We have all watched a baby laughing as he is tossed up and caught again in his daddy's arms. The baby is playing at fear and likes to pretend he is falling. When baby plays hide-and-seek, he is still stimulating his sense of fear. All the chasing games of early schooldays have in them an element of fear.
Older children like thrilling detective stories and cowboy films. The traditional entertainment of midnight feast has always been creepy ghost stories whispered in the dark. Indeed, the whole pleasure of midnight feast at all is based on fear. The possibility of being caught and punished by those in authority contributes much to the enjoyment. All these activities have element of fear.
We no longer tell our children that if they are naughty we shall give them to a policeman.or lock them up in a dark cupboard. It must be confessed that mothers are still sometimes guilty of using Father as a bogey and saying, " just you wait till your daddy comes home!"
It is wicked to frighten a child We need not, however, allow the pendulum to swing too far the other way. It is said that fear of punishment is a deterrent to many crimes.
Children should grow up with some respect for law and order if they are to live happily in any community. A realisation that all his actions, all his thoughts, too, have their consequences good or bad, teach him valuable self-control.
By Mohammedhussain Suleimanjee.