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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