The Power of Denial: Parenting in the Age of Fear
By The Toad on April 26, 2011
Recently, one of my best friends was out biking in a very safe neighborhood with her husband and two children. Suddenly, her nine year old son disappeared. Her first thought was that he’d been abducted. Then, she tried to calm down, since his aunt lives in the neighborhood and it was more likely he took off for her house. After much biking around and yelling, they arrived back at the aunt’s house, and there he was. My friend didn’t scream about abduction at him, just yelled at him for not letting them know he was taking independent action.
She then sat back, stressed out, and thought about the years ahead of her, as her son craves more independence, with fear and dread. What this woman needs more of in her life is the power of denial.
Hear me out on this one. Our generation has been very therapized and analyzed. We’ve been taught that denial, about our pasts, our families, our habits, is a very bad thing, and in some cases it is. But denial also plays a key role in every day life, and particularly in parenting. And when we deny the denial its due, we open ourselves up to more anxiety and plenty of wasted opportunities.
Healthy denial, for instance, is what allows us to participate in virtually any physical activity (there is always risk present, whether you like to play tennis, run, or hang upside down on a trapeze for fun). It’s what allows us to literally get into your car and drive anywhere (car accidents happen in a moment). It’s what propels us onto that plane (forget the aerodynamics; I just deny the plane will fall out of the sky). Obviously, we practice denial every day just to function in modern society, otherwise we’d all be freaky agoraphobics (although statistically, home isn’t all that danger free, either).
When it comes to parenting, though, I think denial takes on paramount importance. In order to allow our children to do anything, we have to deny that they could be harmed. Our denial has to override our protective instincts. Even a baby learning to walk is taking tremendous risks, yet we allow them to learn to walk (although in the case of some parents, not without padding the entire house, which I feel sort of defeats the purpose; there’s value in taking a few lumps).
As children grow, the risk factor becomes bigger. For instance, I let (actually, I demand) that my nine year old daughter walk the dog every day. It’s just a couple of blocks in a very nice area. In order to do this, I have to deny the car danger, the “stranger danger” (minimal, and much exploited by the fear police), the likelihood that some aggressive dog might try to fight our wimpy one, etc. Of course, none of those dangers have ever presented themselves, and my kid gains competence and confidence in walking around and taking responsibility for the dog, not to mention picking up copious amounts of poop.
I also view these little solo walks as a warm up for the future. My daughter will want more autonomy. She’ll want to go to a movie with a friend, get dropped off at a shopping destination, eventually drive herself through Los Angeles. I will have to let her do these things if I am to raise a competent adult who isn’t afraid to live her life. Denial of the dangers involved serves me (and, more importantly, her) pretty well.
Looking back, I think about how good my parents were at this sort of denial. Growing up in L.A., I spent a lot of time out and about at a very young age (eight or nine). I walked to and from school alone. I learned to take the bus to the beach. And my parents, beyond a vague idea of when I’d come home, really had no idea where I was. Nor did they seem concerned. Their powers of denial when it came to child rearing were well developed.
Now, of course, it’s virtually impossible to raise your kids in such a “free range” fashion. There’s an entire parenting fear industry devoted to keep denial at bay in order to sell everything from baby proofing to cell phones for kids. The media trumpets that danger is everywhere and we must be on constant alert against predators (a grossly inflated fear, by the way; children are more likely to be victimized by someone you know than by a stranger). The result? There are kids who are never left alone to develop any independent skills.
Lest you think I’m advocating a cruise down the River of Denial, I’m not. Of course kids should keep parents apprised of their whereabouts. Yes, you should know something about the company they keep, and intervene against really bad influences. But guiding is far different from guarding, and practicing a bit of healthy denial is what keeps us from acting as our kids’ jailors.
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