I Learned It From Watching You, Dad!

Can you pass irrational fear onto your children genetically? Like hair color? My kids aren’t scared of monsters or witches or dogs or getting hit by a car or catching West Nile. But volcanoes? Terrified. They stay up at night worrying about the hot lava, even after my wife and I explained to them that we live about 2,000 miles from the nearest volcano. We showed them that we’d have to get on a plane and fly far, far away. Then we’d have to get in a Jeep and drive a long way. Then we’d have to hike for miles before ever having to worry about being burned by hot lava. (Sidenote: Now, every time they see an airplane, they assume the passengers are going to see a volcano). 

Still, my son is obsesses over volcanoes and is concerned with his favorite things melting. “Daddy, does Buzz Light Year melt?” I have no idea what the melting temperature of Taiwanese plastic is, so I just tell him no. God help us if he ever sees that scene in Indiana Jones where the bad guy’s face melts off. He won’t sleep for weeks.

He’s also really concerned with turning 4. “I don’t want to be 4,” he says, crying a little. Even though his birthday is months away, he agonizes over getting older. This morning, while on the way to one of the brief periods of peace in my life commonly referred to as “child care,” he was staring out the window and said, with a hint of melancholy, “I just want to be 2 again.” Sigh.

What the fuck?

I tried to tell him that being 2 wasn’t all that great. He couldn’t ride a bike. Couldn’t poop in the potty. Couldn’t get Daddy a beer from the fridge…but he wouldn’t have any of it. He’s not even in kindergarten yet, and he thinks his best years are behind him.

My wife told me his irrational fears weren’t genetic, they were learned. Which is a round about way of saying I’m passing on my own neurosis to my children just by being in constant contact with them. It’s like a communicable disease.

And she’s right. I’m scared of just about everything. Some examples: Falling over the second story railing at the mall. Being pushed in front of traffic by a stranger while waiting at a crowded crosswalk. Deportation (I was born in the U.S., but you never know). Public bathrooms.

Public bathrooms are probably at the top of my fear list. One of the things I admire most about my very naïve children is their ability to poop anywhere. Gas station bathroom with an inch of mystery liquid on the floor? “Daddy, I have to poop.”

Personally, I can only poop in two places: My own bathroom, when everyone else in the house is asleep, and Barnes and Noble, but only within 20 minutes of the store opening. Any later and I start imagining all of the people that have beat me to the throne.

I’m also scared of getting hit by a foul ball at baseball games. Strokes (do you smell burnt toast?). Werewolves. Cartoon-induced seizures. Getting charged by a rhino in Africa. Hula hoops. Mascots for professional sports teams. Having to get a real job.

I could go on. It might be easier to list the things I’m not scared of. It’s a short list. Sex. Puppies. Although puppies have unusually sharp teeth. Why is that?

And here’s a short list of things I’m not scared of that I probably should be scared of: Strippers. The bowl of communal nuts at a bar. Drinking while boating. Liquor distilled in a bathtub. Backyard fireworks shows.

But I digress.

So, in the great Nature/Nurture debate, have I passed the tendency to fear irrationally onto my children genetically, or am I simply teaching them to fear the world by putting my own neurosis on display day after day?

I guess the end result is the same either way: two kids who use an inordinate amount of hand sanitizer and who don’t trust the mailman. On the upside, it’s kind of fun to see what the kids will be scared of next. There were a couple of weeks where both kids feared all kinds of different shellfish. For a few of days, my daughter was scared of iguanas. Who knows what fears will surface in the future! Cumulus clouds? Cured meats? Republicans? Cloggers? The sky’s the limit.

Let me know what you or your kids are scared of. The weirder the better. No judgment here.