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Was I Passing My Anxiety onto My Son?

I took my son Danny to Orlando when he was three, officially a “big boy” by his calculations. The day after we arrived, we visited the shops and restaurants of Downtown Disney. I was excited to introduce my dinosaur-obsessed son to the T-Rex Café and figured we might catch a glimpse of a Disney character or two.

“Won’t he be delighted?” I thought to myself. “Won’t this be fun?”

Boy, was I wrong.

One look at the animatronic triceratops by the entrance to the restaurant, and Danny was in tears, tugging me toward the exit. Things improved with a visit to the building tables in front of the Lego Store and the suggestion of a ride on the pint-sized locomotive. But then Danny, usually a Thomas the Tank Engine aficionado, melted down when he heard the train whistle, dismissing the whole business as “too loud” and “too scary.”

You can probably guess his reactions to a visit from Goofy and a ride on the carousel.

Both sad for my sensitive son and — I’ll admit — embarrassed by the curious stares his cries began to elicit, I hurried us back to our condo. Later that afternoon, Danny and I were snuggling on the couch after his nap and enjoying one of those crystalline moments when my love for him felt so potent that it stung my eyes.

Danny’s mind was elsewhere. Still thinking of his morning assault from prehistoric and larger-than-life members of the animal kingdom, he stopped biting his fingernails long enough to tell me, “I feeled scared at that place.”

I noticed his cuticles then, as ragged and torn as my own, and I had to wonder: had I broken the Hippocratic Oath of Parenting that morning? Had I done harm when I hadn’t meant to? Or was Danny just a funny, fickle, three-year-old boy about to outgrow his sensitivities — just as he would the puppy dog overalls he was wearing?

I decided not to risk any further drama. We spent the rest of our trip walking around our condo complex, talking about the palm trees and playing on the swings. We skipped Downtown Disney and the Magic Kingdom and instead did Florida versions of the things we did at home. I didn’t ask Danny to step out of his comfort zone. I tried, just as always, to avoid upsetting him, and we both had a familiar kind of fun.

The summer after our visit to Orlando, I was on the phone with my friend Barbara, a former teaching colleague. I was telling her about a recent Mommy and Me swimming lesson I had taken with Danny. He was all set to go down the pool’s slide with me at the end of the hour just as the other kids in class were doing — until we got to the top. He started to cry, so we headed back down the ladder and rushed out of the pool and into our car.

Once Danny was buckled into his car seat, and I sidled into the driver’s seat, I immediately felt my body relax. I looked at my son in the rearview mirror, safely swaddled in a cocoon of plastic and Styrofoam fully endorsed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and silently congratulated myself for shepherding him away from harm once again.

Then I stopped and looked at myself in the mirror. Had my own fear on that slide platform transferred to Danny? Did he notice how my voice changed as I tried to encourage us up the steps? Did the droplets of pool water on my forehead fail to mask the beads of nervous sweat?

“I couldn’t get us out of there fast enough,” I confided to Barbara. “But now I feel like I overreacted. Even if we didn’t go down the slide, shouldn’t we have stayed to play in the water?”

Barb paused and asked, “Do you remember the unit on the Aztecs in freshman World History?”

“Yeah …” I offered, unsure I was up for a chat about curriculum.

“And the servants who would sweep the ground in front of the nobles so they would never have to step on anything sharp or dirty?” She hesitated, then continued. “Well, it sounds like you’re one of Danny’s servants.”

“Ouch! I was just trying to protect my kid,” I snapped.

“I know you were,” Barb replied. “But the world is full of sharp and dirty things that he is going to have to deal with sooner or later. Maybe it’s time to start teaching him how to watch his own step.”

I made an excuse to get off the phone, and eventually the truth of Barb’s words began to wash over me. I thought about my own childhood; I never experienced much in the way of pain, disappointment, or loss and never really developed the emotional skills to deal with hurdles when they did arise. If a friend was mean or a boy I liked didn’t like me back, I put on my tough face and buried my emotions under the surface. Or I simply ran away.

In place of resilience, I developed nervous habits, which I carried like armor into adulthood: nail biting, teeth grinding, hair twirling. And the worst part was that I seemed to be passing my emotional illiteracy on to my son.

That phone call with Barbara made me realize I had been trying to create an ideal childhood for Danny. I was trying to jury-rig a perfect world for him rather than teach him how to live in the imperfect one we’ve got.

Over the next few months, I tried to be more mindful of how I reacted to Danny’s sensitivities. Instead of rushing him away whenever he felt challenged, I found ways to make the challenge more manageable.

And my efforts seemed to be paying off.

On the first snowy day of winter, Danny, now four, stood at our front window, itching to get outside. After armoring him in a giant parka, snow pants, boots and hat, I helped him slip on his mittens, wiggled into my own boots, and stepped out into the chill.

While outside, Danny noticed some kids across the street speeding down a short hill on their inflatable tubes. We walked across the street together to get a better look, his sled trailing behind us.

“I want to go too, Mommy,” he declared.

“Okay,” I hazarded, the lilt in my voice betraying my lingering concern. He hesitated then, watching a red Gore-Tex blur slide down the hill in front of us.

“Will you come with me, Mommy?”

“Sure. Absolutely.” And I was sure as I maneuvered his toboggan to the ridge at the top of the hill. I clipped on his bike helmet, sat down at the back of the sled, and patted the space between my legs, inviting him to sit too.

When he got himself settled, I wrapped my arms around him and gave him a giant hug. “Ready, Danny?”

“I’m a little bit scared,” he replied.

“That’s alright, Dan. I get scared too sometimes. But I’m right here and I’ll go down with you if you want to try it.”

He looked over at the other kids laughing as they zoomed down the hill, their warm breath billowing up behind them.

“Let’s do it,” he nodded quickly, as if to reassure both of us.

I inched us closer to the edge of the hill, ready for him to call me off. But he didn’t. And soon we were speeding down the hill together, the wind nipping our cheeks, my laughter mixing with his all the way to the bottom.

As soon as our first ride was over, Danny was asking for another. After several more trips, I lowered myself into the back of the sled once again, but Danny hesitated before joining me.

“Mommy, can I do this one by myself?” he asked, his eyes sparkling like the snow all around us.

“Sure, baby, go ahead. You can do it.”

And he did.

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