The scary things list - FamilyEducation

The scary things list

October 07,2008

Yesterday afternoon, while I was waiting outside T.'s preschool for the doors to click open at the magic hour, I chatted with a mom I know who has a two-year-old son. I asked her how things were going, and if her child was sleeping well. I always ask the "sleep question" because I know I always appreciated the question when my kids were little (and still do, although it rarely gets asked now), and I often used it as a chance to unload our numerous sleep woes, until the person who asked the question was truly sorry she/he had asked it in the first place. I can still pull out a litany of current woes, even though L. is eight and T. is 4 1/2--maybe that's why no one asks me about sleep these days.

The mom told me that her son is having terrible night terrors--waking up yelling and crying, and apparently afraid of something dark and shadowy he can't articulate. This, of course, has been disruptive for everyone, including her other child, who sleeps in the same room with the two-year-old.

"I just wasn't prepared for this side of parenting," she told me. "For having to explain away those fears and make it right."

I didn't have much advice to offer her, but I could offer lots of sympathy. I'm always at a loss as to how to allay my children's nighttime fears. Some kids, like L., are super-prone to them, other kids, like T., don't seem bothered by them at all. I think some children are equipped to handle the images that come flooding into their sleeping minds at night; they are practical kids like T., able to sort out real from unreal and with clear ideas about where these boundaries lie. But more creative, sensitive, high-needs children, like L. and that mom's son, just aren't able to see those boundaries.

I promised her I'd email the link to my bag of tricks on sleep post, and offered her lots of sympathy. Then, when I got home, and T. and I were doing leaf rubbings on the back porch, L. showed up with a piece of paper in his hand.

"What's that?" I asked.

"It's my scary things list," he told me. "Can we burn it?"

I'm not one to encourage burning things, but L. remembered a church service we had gone to with my in-laws when he was two (or three? But not much older than three), and there was a beautiful ceremony involving writing your deepest, darkest fears down on paper and then burning those tiny scraps, so they vanished--poof!--right into thin air, never to trouble you again. L. listened and watched, his eyes wide with interest and awe and when it was his turn, we wrote down his fears for him--almost the same ones he had written down yesterday on his sheet (he's a consistent kid). And while I repeat AGAIN that I am not one to encourage burning things, I AM one to encourage any tricks or cooked-up ceremonies or chants or special sprays designed to foster better sleeping in our house. So we burned the list, right down to curly, gray ashes.

I don't delude myself that this will stick, but what I want to tell that mom the next time I see her is that there are often no good explanations for the scary parts of life's sleeping AND waking moments. Sometimes you have to fudge it--cross your fingers and hope it will all turn out okay in the end; sometimes you might find yourself crouched in your front driveway setting fire to paper, and wishing that you can indeed make your child's fears vanish like smoke.