Things that go bump

Cultural differences in dealing with and overcoming childhood fears

When I was quite young, a neighbor had their house broken into. Evidently, I overheard my parents talking about how the thieves hadn’t been caught and subsequently refused to go outside in the backyard alone for a year. Although I have no recollection of my childhood fear of burglars, I’m getting a taste of how such a childhood fear looks from an adult’s perspective.

Six-year old Oliver has always been somewhat fearful, at least compared to his two siblings. Caught in the middle of a family of act-first, think-second “go-getters,” Oliver’s caution and introspection often comes across as fear. On the ski slopes, he skis slowly to avoid falling. Meanwhile his older sister whizzes by so quickly, an adult skier stops to reprimand her to slow down and pay attention. Oliver will walk his bike down the semi-steep hill near our house while I hold on tightly three-year-old Samuel’s jacket collar, making sure his excitement doesn’t take him down the hill faster than his legs can manage.

When we pull into the garage on a winter afternoon and it’s already dark outside, Sammy and Anna Lee hop out of the car and storm through the house – Anna to her room and Samuel to the playroom. Neither of them stops to think whether there might be burglars hiding in the bathroom or thieves brandishing knives in the closet. These frightening thoughts (and more) flash through Oliver’s head as he sits in the backseat and waits for me to open his door, walk inside the house first and close the garage door securely behind us.

Once Oliver’s safely inside our house, he camps out on the couch while I make dinner. He entices Samuel with toys and magazines to stay in the bathroom while he’s going to the toilet. He convinces either Anna or Sam to bathe with him so he won’t be in the tub alone, and once he’s tucked snugly in bed, he begs and pleads for either Radek or me to lay down with him until he falls asleep.

I confess, as parents, neither Radek nor I is very sympathetic to Oliver’s fears. At the end of a long day, I don’t want to have to walk upstairs and stand in the bathroom while Oliver is brushing his teeth because he’s scared that thieves might come through the roof window and get him. I don’t want to hear him call my name every time he hears something, just to make sure that the thieves haven’t gotten me and are coming for him next.

While I try to listen to Oliver and reason with him, Radek’s reaction is more along the lines of “Stop this nonsense.” He doesn’t want to listen to Oliver tell him about the things he’s scared of. He wants him to pull himself together and just get over it. To tell the truth, so do I. However, I’m notably more interested in trying to get to the bottom of why he’s scared.

I have noticed that my husband isn’t the only Czech who expects his child to face fears and get over them quickly. Czech culture in general gives children the independence to walk to and from school, ride public transportation by themselves and even stay at home after school by themselves until their parents come home from work. On our dead-end lane during the weekends and school holidays, the children are allowed to go from garden to garden and to play in the vacant lot. There’s not much supervision until mealtime, and then the children are expected to come home and eat with their family. However, there are still certain cultural tendencies that reign strong. Boys shouldn’t cry, as crying is for girls and only then, for little girls. I’ve heard both my husband and mother-in-law repeat those words to Oliver, as if, in the middle of an emotional moment, he’ll suddenly remember, “Oh, yeah. I’m a boy; boys don’t cry.”

The Czech parents that I know don’t spend a lot of time coddling their children or taking them to the psychologist to let them talk about their fears. Going to see a psychologist or talking to a counselor still carries a stigma in this pragmatic, do-it-yourself culture. This person needs help and isn’t strong enough to do it for himself. In general, the Czech culture is more private than what I knew growing up in a small Appalachian town where everyone knew everyone else’s business. Czech children, and particularly boys, seem to be expected to solve their problems without needing help from an “outsider.” When I mentioned taking Oliver to see a psychologist, just to talk about his fears with someone who wasn’t a parent, the Czechs that I spoke with seemed to think it wasn’t necessary. He’s got to just get over it, they said. Maybe they’re right.

But between now and when Oliver “gets over” his fears, it’s a rocky road at our house when darkness falls. As long as either Radek or I is willing to give up a portion of our evening sleeping in one of the boys’ bunk beds until they both fall asleep, things go smoothly. But on the nights that I don’t have thirty minutes to spare I can feel the stress on both sides. Knowing that I was once a fearful child, I sympathize with Oliver.

I remember not too long ago, when we still lived in Žižkov in Prague, whenever I used to ride the tram home after dark, I would always run from the tram stop down the long street to our apartment. I know I looked ridiculous doing it. But, after having the misfortune of being once mugged in Vinohrady, I figured it was better to look a bit silly and run from the tram home than to stay at home because I was too scared to go out after dark. When first we moved to our house out of the city, sometimes I missed the noise and activity of town, especially at night. When the neighborhood was quiet and dark, I didn’t know whether to turn on all the lights in the house, or to appreciate the quiet.

Life in the Czech Republic can be pretty idyllic. There’s plenty of time spent outdoors in this culture that regards weekends as time for family, sporting activities and relaxation. Even the most popular activities seem pretty laid back, such as gathering mushrooms in the forest, walking through the city parks or visiting shops and cafes. And for the most part, the Czech Republic is a fairly calm and safe place. I want all of my children, especially Oliver, to grow up believing that they live in a safe place. They shouldn’t be afraid to go into their house when it’s dark, nor should they be scared to play hide and seek with the neighborhood children on a starlit summer evening. Radek has fond memories of afternoons spent alone in the woods as an older child. After reading Karl Maj’s books about the American West, he spent time traipsing through the forest daydreaming about what that life might have looked like.

When Oliver first came back from his week in the mountains, it seemed his fears were stronger than ever. He had watched a scary movie one night while there, and he couldn’t get it out of his head. I told him that I understood. To this day, I still avoid scary movies when I can (to which Harry Potter classifies). Real life can be too frightening at times for me to ever want to scare myself with fiction.

I overheard Radek giving Oliver some advice the other night. They were sitting on the couch together, after a bike ride where Oliver had repeatedly jumped off his bike to avoid going down any steep down hills. Radek asked Oliver if he knew what his biggest enemy was. Oliver thought for a moment, then shook his head. “Fear,” Radek replied. If you let it, it will always stand in your way. Oliver took this thought to heart for a minute, then he snuggled up to his dad and said, “Daddy, it’s time to go brush my teeth. Who’s going to stand in the bathroom tonight, you or Mommy?”

Taking it one day at a time seems to help though, and I’m looking forward to warm summer nights to show Oliver how much fun hide-and-seek in the dark can be, catching fireflies in my parents’ Virginia backyard and going to sleep under the stars in one of Český raj’s campgrounds.

Half-n-half has moved! To my new wordpress site at http://www.halfnhalfblog.wordpress.com. Look here for more stories about our life and adventures in the Czech Republic. You can also subscribe to my new email newsletter for updates by writing to emily@praguemonitor.com.

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Spring time has sprung

Spring time has sprung

Enjoying the new season as a temporary mother of one

The past week’s spring-like temperatures of 15C have fired me up with a post-winter enthusiasm that has prompted two trips to the recently re-opened local garden center. I went under the pretense of just looking. The warming sun’s rays have also prompted me to wash our winter coats and boots for storage and dust off the boys’ baseball caps – and pledge to wash my windows.

Delicate purple crocuses and slender green daffodil stalks have peeped through the mulch bark border along our garden’s edge. Our hydrangea plants have green buds, and decorative grasses have sprung up in the space that was only rocks last week. Each day, I can tell the flowers are a little taller and the ground is getting a shade greener.

Over the weekend, Radek hooked up a children’s trailer to his bike and we took three-year-old Samuel for a first-ride of the season, an ambitious 40-kilometers that left my leg muscles aching the following day. Our scenic route took us through the woods in Statenice, up by the airport, through the magnificent craggy rock formations in Sarka into the Stromovka park, across the Vltava, past the zoo and finally across the river again via ferry to bike through Roztoky’s tiche udoli (quiet valley) and end at the Unetice brewery.

The scenery was breath-taking, and the outdoors was hopping with activity. We weren’t the only ones with spring on our minds. During the ride we passed whole assortments of people enjoying the weather, some serious bikers, people out walking dogs and local policemen patrolling on horseback. We saw families picnicking with hammocks in the park and children trying out new rollerblades on the relatively smooth path from the zoo to Klecany where the ferry docks. Older Czechs with walking sticks and canes stopped and smiled at Samuel when we passed. Biking with the sun’s warming rays on my back, winter was a distant memory.

While half of my enthusiasm stemmed from spring cheer, the rest likely corresponded to the conspicuous absence of two-thirds of my offspring. While we were in Prague celebrating spring, Anna Lee and Oliver were living up the last days of winter. On Saturday, they’d had left for a week-long ski trip to the Krkonose mountains with their Czech elementary school. The school’s annual “lyzak” (ski course) was offered for children from 2-5 grades with a special exception for first-grade Oliver as the brother of a third grader.

I had my reservations about letting the children go for a week to ski without us, especially after watching the ambulance during our family’s spring break at Lipno make back-and-forth trips from the ski slopes to the nearest hospital. With the mild weather this winter, ski slopes in the Czech Republic were kept in operation only through the use of technical snow, which was icy in the morning and heavy and slushy by the afternoon. The conditions were ripe for broken arms and legs.

The ski trip was a regular extension of Czech children’s out-of-school physical education with about half of Anna Lee’s third grade class attending. We’d committed to it last November, before we’d known what kind of winter we had in store. Both Anna and Oliver were excited. At least, I figured, the kids would have a chance to ski a few days more before they traded skis for bikes. And they’d be learning the valuable lesson of independence and self-reliance that the Czech school system fosters early on with its out-of-school overnight activities.

Waiting beside the bus, I took a deep breath, gave them both giant kisses and reminded them to put sunscreen on their noses. Then I waved as hard as I could until the bus finally pulled away.

Then, Radek, Sammy and I got down to business. With only one child at home, things were simple. Without his older siblings to influence him, Sammy was at once agreeable – he ate what we ate (Vietnamese Pho, green salads and spicy Thai pumpkin soup) without protest. He got his wheelbarrow and gardening gloves and helped cart away branches from Radek’s spring trimming. He rode in the bike trailer without complaint, glad to pedal when he could and happy to sit and watch the scenery. He was delighted to choose not one, but two bedtime stories, and to have the luxury of both parents reading to him.

A friend sent me a whats app message: “How’s your week going? One child – no child, right?” I hated to admit it, but having only Samuel at home threw me back to my first days in Prague as a new mother to one-year old Anna Lee. The possibilities seemed endless: swim lessons, trips to the park, visiting with friends. This week I could finally do what I hadn’t managed to do in years.

But there were drawbacks. At the brewery instead of going to the playground to interact with the other children, some of whom he knew from our neighborhood, Samuel sat contentedly on my lap, waiting to go home. At home, instead of rushing up the stairs to the playroom to see if his toys were where he’d left them the day before, he pulled on my arm and begged me to go up with him. He wanted me on the street to help him ride his big-boy bike and to play tennis with him in the garden. At bedtime, without the comfort of Oliver on the top bunk, he expected me to lay down with him until he fell asleep.

Time passed. Samuel went to preschool, I taught. We spent afternoons on the road in front of our house, practicing on his bike and waiting for Radek. He talked his blend of Czechlish, and I answered him in English. One day turned into the next.

Then, Anna called to say that she was worn out from skiing. She missed us; she was ready to come home. It was only Tuesday. The next night, she and Oliver called together. He was homesick, hungry and thirsty. He’d already spent the pocket money we’d given them on sweets and drinks. I suggested he drink water from the tap. Anna offered to buy him a lollipop with her last 16CZK. I suggested they forget the lollipop and asked Anna if she could read him a story instead and settle him into bed. She told me that she needed to sign off and promised to find his teacher.

On Saturday at noon, we’ll go to the school and pick them up. I’m ready. I’m sure they will be too. Although I’ve missed them dreadfully, I know that this week has been an important one for them as well as for us back at home. We’ve gotten a re-taste of life with one child, and I can’t deny that it’s been fun.

But, I’m ready now for the chaos and the madness of life with our whole family together again. We won’t be able to bike 40-kilometers; if we make half the loop together, it’ll be impressive. I’ll be back to cooking more and relaxing less. Cleaning windows will have to wait.

Unless, perhaps, I can convince the three of them to do it for me.

Half ‘n Half is moving! To my new wordpress site at http://www.halfnhalfblog.wordpress.com. Look here for more stories about our life and adventures in the Czech Republic. You can also subscribe to my new email newsletter for updates by writing to emily@praguemonitor.com.