During the Christmas season, our family went to a local nature park for a Santa sleigh ride.
A tractor pulled a trailer bed full of a people through trees over a few hills. My son kept his eyes trained on the rumbling tractor as it climbed down the hill toward us where we waited in line.
As I stepped toward the trailer bed, holding my son’s hand, he yanked his hand from mine and said, "No!"
"Honey, we’re going on the Santa ride," I explained.
"No!" my son cried, clinging to me tighter.
I wavered for a moment, caught in indecision. I had known that my son might be nervous about this ride, because he doesn’t always like new experiences that involve loud noises and excessive movement. I also knew exposure therapy--the process of allowing a person to experience the thing they fear in a small, safe measure--could help people to overcome fears and try new things.
Would this be one of those parenting moments when I should force him to face his fears or allow him some space to decide for himself what he wanted? The ride was short, I decided, and I’d hold him the whole time. I’d be his safe center while he tried a new thing.
So I picked him up and we climbed onto the trailer bed. My son murmured in protest, clung to my neck, and buried his face against my shoulder as the tractor pulled us over the hills and through the trees. Birdsong called out to us from the trees and the cold air fogged before our faces. My son stole peeks at the scene around us, raising his head from my shoulder before burying it again. Overall, he seemed both duly unimpressed and mildly anxious.
Once the ride ended we climbed down and went inside the nature center to do crafts. It wasn’t until a day later, when we were at home, that my son surprised me.
He was playing with his toy tractor and trailer, pulling it along the coffee table, loading the tractor bed with tiny toy animals.
"Santa ride!" he told me. "Santa ride! Again?"
"You want to go on the Santa ride again?" I asked.
"Yep," he said, nodding enthusiastically and returning to his toy tractor and trailer.
For the weeks that followed it was all he’d talk about. The Santa ride. He spoke of it when he woke in the morning and when he went to sleep. When we drove past a tractor in a field he pointed at it, exclaiming, "Santa ride! Santa ride!"
It had changed from a fear to an obsession. Until it was replaced with something new. Kids are like nature itself. Always changing, shedding old skin and growing anew.
But not all fears will be so easy to face. Nor will I always be able to help him by simply holding him. It seems what is most important is not just the facing of the fear, but the anticipation of the change after you’ve faced the fear. To remind a child that what he hates now he may like later. That he is capable of change, though he may feel fixed and frightened in any given moment. Why bother to face a fear unless you are capable of growth?
Like the trees that anticipate holding leaves once again after the winter is over, we can anticipate growth after new experiences. Maybe by helping our children believe they can do something new, it will help them to do so.