I am a certified scaredy-cat, which is to say that I have many, many fears. Some of them are objectively nonsense (mockingbirds), while others make a whole lot more sense (highway driving), but they are what they are. I prefer to think of my chronic fear responses as more of an enhanced survival instinct. My flight instinct is strong — I come from a long line of people who hid in caves to avoid being eaten by pterodactyls.
One thing I’ve tried to not do is pass these on to my kid by flipping out when I hear the telltale, angry pencil sharpener sound of a rabid mockingbird or by hyperventilating when I get behind the wheel of a car. I didn’t want to pass my cowardice on to her. The good news is that I haven’t done that (she is all about bird-watching). The bad news is that she’s got a list of her own.
I know, because I saw it earlier this summer. It was a literal paper-and-ink laundry list of terrifying crap, like heights, bees, singing in front of other people and Snapchat filters that start cute but turn into scary demons.
It all looked pretty legit, but I was, of course, concerned to see a “Things That Scare Me” list from her, because my child tends to be hypercritical of herself. I worried that she was drawing it up so she could post it near her mirror as a reminder to berate herself daily. But when I asked her what it was for, she said she was planning a different kind of summer bucket list — one that involved her facing her fears.
Of course, I’ve always known my kid is brave. The thing is, she hasn’t always known it. As she ticks off the items on her fear list one by one — rappelling from 12 feet to obliterate a fear of heights, walking up to the buzzing bush near our house and braving the flying, stinging murder-bugs that populate it — that’s starting to change. As I type this, she’s writing a song (a Minecraft parody — what else?) to sing at her last guitar lesson of the summer, though she’s still not sure if she’ll be requiring the audience to close their eyes.
What’s most remarkable, though, is that her little quest to be brave is catching. It’s no secret that kids need their parents to model things for them, and courage is one thing I’ve just sort of let fall to the wayside. After all, I did my time in Mockingbird Hell, Georgia, and I’ve always felt I’ve earned the right to be a little wuss about it. This time it’s working the opposite way round. I also hate wasps, but if my kid can refrain from diving for cover when she sees those hateful winged abominations, so can I, right?
First, I just started matching her fear for fear. Wasps, heights, freaky Snapchat filters. Soon we were egging each other on. Without being reckless, who could be more daring? Who will escort the spider outside? Who can climb the highest on the rock wall? Bike down the hill faster? Last the longest on the Google Image results page for “clown”?
It’s a game no one loses, because at the end, we’re both clapping and cheering for each other.
My one reasonable not-hilarious fear is a fear of highway driving. When my daughter was a baby and I was in college, a speeding car rear-ended me on an Atlanta highway, totaling my car and jacking my shizz up real bad. I thought I was fine, but as it turns out, I wasn’t. For years I got the sweats when I tried to get on an expressway, followed by awful panic attacks. If I tried to rationalize my way out of it, I couldn’t. After all, at my age, the leading cause of death is unintentional injury. The leading cause of unintentional injury is a motor vehicle accident.
Fear like this is limiting. There is this basic thing you should be able to do, and you just… can’t.
I have never questioned that, if the time came, and the only thing standing between my daughter and safety was a fear of mine, I could face it down, for her. Lift a car, bitch-slap a bear, broom-fight a rabid mockingbird — whatever it took. Before this summer, it never occurred to me that I could be brave for me, which is ultimately a much more valuable thing for both of us. I may never have to wrestle a shark for her sake, but I will have innumerable chances to show her how small acts of courage are empowering and lead to a better quality of life. I’ve already had plenty and let them slip through my fingers.
I’ve lived for 30 years and had a lot of good days. But last Tuesday, when I signaled, checked my blind spot and exited the highway to get to a movie theater in the city 40 miles from my house — the first time I’d been on anything bigger than two lanes in seven years — and my daughter chanted “all hail my mom, queen of the road!” is definitely one of the best in recent memory.
If I were a perfect mother, I would have taught my daughter an important lesson when I saw her bucket list — that being brave is about more than recklessly throwing yourself out of planes or swimming with sharks or attending Clown Con. I will probably never feel invincible on the highway, and my daughter won’t go on to perform “We Don’t Even Have to Mine (We’ve Got Diamonds)” for any more than three people.
But I’m not a perfect mother, so my kid ended up teaching me a lesson of her own: Courage isn’t even about never being afraid; it’s just about being a little bit bigger than your fears.
Measure it this way, and my tiny child is a veritable giant.