Volume 16 • Issue 33 | January 16 - 22, 2004


The fear of passing on fear to my son

By Jane Flanagan

During half time at a basketball game last weekend I was startled at the site of my five-year-old son gingerly climbing the bleachers. Until then, he always let loose between halves running up and down them.

As his mother, I certainly prefer the new approach. Bleachers make me nervous. Staring down at the gap separating the footrest from the seats, I see that huge drop below. Still, he was being very cautious and I wondered why.

Then it occurred to me. Perhaps he’s beginning to absorb some of his Dad and my fear of heights.

Last year at the Bronx Zoo, the three of us took a ride on a chairlift. Rusty had a great time, peering out and marveling over how high we were. Bob and I sat in silence occasionally smiling or nodding. It was all we could manage. Later, alone, we confessed to one another how we couldn’t wait to get down.

But it’s possible he’s absorbing some of our neurosis. While I hate to think so, I can’t deny that he’s susceptible to the fears of adults. Recently, Rusty started telling us he was afraid of planes. We discovered this after we told him about our planned trip to Florida to celebrate Grandma’s birthday.

He started to cry.

“I don’t want to go on an airplane,” he said.

“Why?” we asked.

“I am afraid it’s going to crash.”

We couldn’t figure out where this was coming from. He flew on planes at ages 3 and 4. And even though at age 4 he said he didn’t like when the plane “banked,” he seemed to enjoy the rest of the flight. This is also a boy whose vocabulary includes words like — “B-47,” “A7 Corsair,” and “Blackbird” military planes.

But then I remembered something. Recently a family friend whom Rusty adores told me that she was afraid of planes crashing. She was here on 9/11 and still finds herself looking up whenever she hears an airplane.

So I explained to Rusty that, while someone he loves may be afraid of planes, he doesn’t have to be. Everyone is different, I told him. Also, while our friend may be afraid of airplanes, she goes on them anyway.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about his new fears.

I come from a family with a history of phobias. Driving, flying and hospitals to name a few. I’ve never been able to figure out the source either. Our family goes back two generations in this country, long enough to overlap with the dawn of automobiles, flight and modern medicine. And no one in that time has been in a terrible car accident, plane crash or hospitalized with an unusually long, devastating illness.

But whatever the origin, these fears have impacted lives. One relative, after his beloved wife had a potentially scary operation, only reluctantly agreed to see her in post-op. He stayed five minutes and left. Another missed the funeral of her 49-year-old son-in-law because she wouldn’t get on a plane.

From this history, I seem to have inherited a fear of fear itself. I know it’s impossible to grow up without becoming unreasonably afraid of some things. Life just throws us too many curves and besides, we’re human. But I sure don’t want my son becoming limited by them.

I’ll always remember a story a friend told me in the days after 9/11. In an attempt to address the general mass of anxiety overcoming us all, a lieutenant at an Uptown firehouse posted a message out front.

Acknowledging the permeating fear, he asked people to keep going forward. “That’s what we do,” he wrote.

Being brave does not mean being fearless. Firemen are not unafraid to walk into a burning building. But they do it anyway. That’s bravery.

The other night Rusty told me he was looking forward to the trip to Grandma’s. “I won’t even be afraid when the plane banks,” he said. I’m not entirely sure I believe him. He’s been afraid of that banking thing for a long time. But it’s okay. It’s his way of choosing to do it anyway.



Downtown Express is published by
Community Media LLC.

Downtown Express | 487 Greenwich St., Suite 6A | New York, NY 10013

Phone: 212.242.6162 | Fax: 212.229.2970
Email: news@downtownexpress.com

Written permission of the publisher must be obtainedbefore any of the contents of this newspaper, in whole or in part, can be reproduced or redistributed.