My 5-year-old daughter is fine with scary stories until she has to go to bed. The trouble starts when she is lying under the covers in her darkened room, separated from her parents not only by the admittedly small distance of a few yards and one wall but also by the infinitely vaster distance of imagination. And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I can still recall my 11-year-old self, hunkered down with a neighborhood playmate, reading ghost stories (against my parents’ advice) and being certain, in the full light of day, that such ridiculous stories would never affect me. I didn’t sleep for a week.
My daughter, Julienne, is similarly full of confidence during the day and similarly terrified at night. Seemingly innocuous images catalyze this reaction in her 5-year-old mind. Once it was the giant depicted in Mickey and the Beanstalk. We dealt with that one for several nights. Once it was a mildly disturbing character from a children’s magazine, even though that character was clearly intended to come across as impish. There was a dragon from one story or another. The odd witch or two. Julienne has yet to experience such classics as Disney’s Snow White or Cinderella, not because we have anything against those movies, but because we know she won’t be able to handle the villains depicted in them.
When I am called into my daughter’s room to reassure her in her moments of fear, what strategy should I adopt to alleviate my child’s fear in her time of need? When Julienne is afraid of a cartoon giant crushing our house or carrying her away, I can respond by saying something like, “Sweetheart, giants aren’t real: they’re just characters in stories. You don’t need to worry about that. Go back to sleep.” Or when she is concerned about the incendiary ramifications of a passing dragon’s exhalations, I can counter, “Dragons don’t really exist, honey. You don’t need to be afraid of dragons.” This is what many parents do in similar circumstances, and it may often be the best course of action.
But is it always? Is it possible we’re actually doing them a disservice in the long run? Here’s what I mean: The “It’s not real” argument may certainly work when used in reference to a dragon, an ogre, a giant, or a witch. But it will not work when used to combat the real fears of pain, loss, heartbreak, loneliness, betrayal, and sin. So would it be valuable for parents of young children, like myself, to consider an alternative strategy for dealing with our children’s current fears, in the hope that it will translate into habitual practice of handling fear throughout their lives?
Here are two biblical ways we can address our children’s current fears and teach them how to handle the other fears that will inevitably emerge from the shadows later on.
Teach them that God is more fearful than our fears.
One of the most awe-inspiring ways God shows himself in Scripture is in what theologians call storm theophanies (for example, Ex. 13:21; 14:19-21; 19:16-19, 1 Sam. 7:10; 1 Kg. 8:10-11; 18:38, 19:11-12, Job 36:24-38:1; Ps. 18:7-15). Perceiving God in the midst of the storm helps us grasp his power and his majesty. But it also helps us remember the only one who ought to cause us to fear: God himself. As Jesus teaches:
I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke 12:4-5)
How does teaching our children to fear God help them handle their other fears? If we prayerfully employ the Scriptures in our efforts, two responses will follow. First, the fear of God will vastly outweigh other, lesser concerns. And second, the fear of God will give birth to confidence in God. This is what we see happening in the life of David in Psalm 18. After reflecting on the terrifying magnificence of God in verses 7-15, he is led to announce his own salvation by God in verses 16-19.
Teaching our children to tremble before the Lord is a task we must embrace all the time, not just in moments of darkness-inspired fear.
Teach them that God will protect us from what is most fearful.
The second lesson we must instill in our children is the liberating truth that God will protect us from what is most fearful. The challenge here is to find the balance in emphasis between the reassurance that God will protect us and the clarification that God’s protection might include real pain and suffering. Another way of expressing this idea is to say that while God has never promised us that we won’t be cast into the furnace, he has shown us that we won’t go through it alone (see Isa. 43:1-2).
When Julienne calls me into her room out of fear of dragons or giants, I try to remind her of these things. I tell her that God loves her and is more to be feared than any monster. I tell her that Jesus died for her and that even if something bad were to happen, it would only mean that she would be with him that much sooner. I tell her that, while I’m pretty sure all the giants died off a long time ago and that I’ve never seen a dragon in these parts, if one or the other does show up, she can trust me to fight it off for her.
I tell her these things because I know the dragons and giants will morph into their real-life counterparts: the all-consuming destruction of self-love and the brutal ugliness of sin. And when the day of that battle arrives, she needs a sharper sword in her hand than my whispered delusion, “They’re not real.” Such a dull blade will never penetrate dragon scales or giant’s hide. But the monster has yet to be spawned that can withstand the fury of the protective love of the heavenly Father.
These are the truths that calm the night terrors of 5-year-olds in my house. Indeed, these are the truths that calm my own.