Why Your Kids Need to See You Struggle

by Jun 25, 2013Family Matters16 comments

E ver since I was a little kid, I’ve been afraid of bees, even though I’ve never actually been stung.

Actually, that’s a good lesson right there. We’re often most afraid of the things we’ve never experienced.

Anyway, having a stinging insect phobia as a resident of Florida was certainly inconvenient. That’s something they don’t put in the state publicity material.

It’s not just bees, wasps, and yellow jackets either, though there are lots of those. I was once chased by a biting fly around my yard, which unfortunately no one could see but I could hear buzzing along behind me.

I don’t know what made my dad decide he needed to intervene. Maybe it was because no matter how many times he tried to tell me to be brave, I wasn’t. Maybe it was because for all his demands that I not whine, wince, or otherwise squeal in their presence, I did anyway. I couldn’t help it.

I guess in his mind, that left only one alternative: put me in the middle of a bee swarm.

We were at a picnic and for reasons I don’t know or remember, the playground was full of bees. There were hundreds of them, flying around and crawling on the playground equipment. Had I known before such a thing could happen, it would have been the stuff of recurrent nightmares.

My dad ordered me to go play. I’m sure he had some crazy fantasy of me climbing the ladder to the slide with trepidation, sliding down as fast as I could, and then magically realizing that bees are nice creatures that we can peacefully coexist with.

It wasn’t like that.

I pleaded with him not to make me do it. I sobbed. I was pretty much hysterical, which at 8 years old, only added a sense of shame to my terror. Other kids were staring at us, thanking their lucky stars they had more sympathetic parents.

If you’re wondering, I did go down the slide. I wasn’t stung. But I was afraid for life.

As an adult, and a military officer at that, my response to bees after that was embarrassingly immature. What changed everything for me was the birth of my daughter. I was determined not to pass on my irrational fear.

Except I did, in a way I never expected.

I was brave. I walked by bees on the sidewalk with nary a flinch. Everything my dad had ever asked of me (except that nutty playground adventure) I could now do with sufficient will. I just needed a reason bigger than myself to get over my fear.

That’s another good lesson. If you want to get over a real fear, you probably need a better reason than, “I don’t want to be afraid.”

The biggest moment with my daughter came just a few weeks ago while watering some plants. A bee landed on a flower next to me, and although I started breathing heavily, I calmly moved down the line a bit and continued watering.

The bee followed me.

I could feel the panic starting to rise, but I thought about my daughter and forced myself to shuffle down to another flower again. The bee buzzed past me and my bravery was done. I let out a squeal of fear. My daughter came running and wanted to know what was wrong.

I explained my back and forth with the bee. She was wide-eyed with wonder. “I couldn’t be that brave,” she told me.

“I wasn’t always like that you know. I used to be horribly afraid.”

“You were?” she asked incredulously.

I told her the whole story, how I used to be just like her, but after years of working on it, of failing and then trying again, I’d found a way to manage the fear. I am still afraid, I said, but now I know I can handle the worst case scenario–getting stung–and that lets me practice bravery.

It’s just like learning to read, I told her. You start small and you keep at it. Before you know it, you can do things that would have been impossible before. Maybe one day I won’t be afraid of bees at all. Maybe one day I’ll know how to spell bureaucracy or hors d’oeuvres without spell checker.

Whether it’s overcoming a fear of bees or doing what you love, kids need to see that success isn’t something you flip like a light switch.  (Click to tweet)

It turns out that putting on a brave face for my daughter wasn’t much better than forcing her into a bee swarm. Seeing me struggle has made all the difference for my daughter. She now sees a path for her own courage and she’s following it, step by tiny step. We revel in our progress and empathize in our inevitable setbacks.

Teaching our kids about the realities of life, about the realities driving our own hopes and fears, is essential if we don’t want to keep generating over-achievers filled with self-loathing because they aren’t already perfect.

Our kids don’t need us to be perfect and we don’t need to pretend to be fearless. They need a stepping stone that will safely take them from who they are to who they want to be.

It’s good to know fear has a purpose.