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My Son Thinks I'm the Bravest. Is It OK to Tell Him I’m Not?

Six weeks ago, I surprised my three-year-old with a trip to his favorite Brooklyn playground in the early hours before my work day began. A somewhat routine itinerary pre-COVID, this trip had now become something sacred, mainly due to the fact that after 13 years as New Yorkers, my husband and I temporarily uprooted our family for close to 14 months while we rode the pandemic out.

Now, we were back, which meant this trip to the park was a non-ceremonial homecoming. Except for one problem: My formerly city-loving child was scared.

Of what exactly? Mostly, the loud noises and the hustle and bustle and over-stimulation of city life, a massive contrast to spending the past one third of his life in an area so calm and quiet, you could identify birds by their calls. (Not kidding, he’s a bit of an expert now.) On this particular morning, only a few days after our move back, a truck made a loud bang—the exhaust pipe, I’m guessing—and my son freaked. I went into full-blown mama mode: “It’s OK! That was just a loud noise and it surprised us.” His reply? “Mama is so brave.”

His remark stopped me in my tracks. First of all, I had no idea that, at three and a half, he was capable of using that word in a sentence, let alone assigning the correct meaning to it. But the other reason tugged at my heart: I would never identify as brave. 

For one thing, there was our move, aka the decision to jerk my family around with multiple address changes, all in the name of a “safety” that I couldn’t quite guarantee. (That felt less about bravery, more about fear…and logistics.) But there was also the nightly insomnia as I worried about a pandemic that continued to rage and mutate and agonized over the choice I’d made to move back to New York and away from my family support system. Heck, I even questioned my own city confidence (were the trucks always that loud?).

Should I tell my son the truth? I decided to dial an expert for advice.

“I think the place to start is thinking about what the word ‘brave’ actually means,” explained Kristine Geering, director of content at the Parent Lab and a child development expert. “The word doesn’t mean you aren’t scared. It means you were scared and you did it anyway. That is an incredibly powerful message for ourselves and for our kids.”  

Per Geering, when the world feels like it’s imploding and routine feels like a pipe dream, it’s important to demonstrate that fear is an emotion that everyone has; it’s also one you can’t stuff down and ignore. Our kids—even the toddler-sized variety—know us too well for that.

Instead, a better approach is to name your feelings, something that actually helps your kids’ brain growth as well as emotional intelligence development. “This doesn’t mean showing your child the abject terror you feel every time you watch the news. It means letting them know when you are feeling kind of scared or anxious about something and then showing them how you manage it.”

Something about that last piece of advice clicked. On our next playground trek—and the 50 times we went after that—whenever my toddler fretted about the noise, I demonstrated what I do if I get surprised by a loud sound. I clapped both hands over my ears. When he tried it, I even held my hands over his as a double barrier. He was still anxious, but he smiled. (A brave face? I’d definitely describe it as that.) I also told him that loud sounds are scary because they feel so new, even for me. (Together, we came up with a plan to identify the sounds as we heard them—a garbage truck, a street sweeper, a subway train. A couple months later, he hardly hears them.)

As for my own relationship with bravery: I re-examined my definition of the word and tried applying the same tactics I did with my son. For example, I can manage my fears about the pandemic if I prioritize the present. I can worry less about a lack of family support if I block off dates for more regular visits home (complete with COVID tests). I can regain my city confidence by walking around to remember all the reasons I loved it in the first place—those brownstones, the people watching, the sight of the skyline at night!

And as for the days when I feel like curling up in a ball? Geering has advice: “In a situation like that, use whatever coping strategies you have to calm yourself first (deep breathing is a good one), then reassure your child that no matter what happens, they will be taken care of. Be their rock. And if the fear seeps through? Own it. ‘I am feeling a little scared right now. But I’ve felt scared in the past. We’ll figure this out together.’”