28 September, 2013

Nothing to fear but fear itself (and parrots)

I once punched a medium-sized pig in the face. Twice. Not because I can’t separate real life from Angry Birds but because, as far as I could tell, it was in the process of biting my daughter’s hand off.

I’ve always been very blasé with the kids if they were afraid of something unlikely… “Daddy, I’m scared of going upstairs on my own in case there’s monsters”; “Daddy, I’m scared of riding in the shopping trolley because it might chop my legs”; “Daddy, I’m scared your investment strategy relies too heavily on the returns of a single class of investment, spreading your money across a range of investments such as shares, property, bonds and cash would reduce your exposure to market risk”. My view is that any inability to overcome fear-of-the-untried could prevent the children from living life to-the-full, so I have always pushed quite hard through any initial resistance to new things. (This has mainly applied to my little boy – my little girl is dauntlessly intrepid, he is “naturally cautious” or “a total wuss-faced fraidy-cat” depending on your parlance.)
However, when my previously-considered-to-be irrational fear of the kids getting their arms stumpified at a petting farm turned out to be a valid concern, I had cause to reflect on this approach…

My pig concern almost-certainly germinated from a) the films Snatch and Hannibal, the two most widely-available showcasings of pigs’ ability to chomp through bone; and b) many examples of the folly that is trusting non-domesticated animals (Siegfried & Roy’s tame white tiger; countless brutal attacks by friendly chimpanzees; that pink bear’s final betrayal at the end of Toy Story 3). But I’ve always laughed it off as a ridiculous concern, “It must be fine mustn’t it? Kids don’t get their fingers bitten off by pigs. Someone would have said. Let’s enjoy some light petting.”
On this particular farm visit, my daughter three at the time, I cautiously placed the pellets on her palm and held her fingers straight with my hand to ensure our porcine patron was just slurping them up from a flat surface. But at some point, as I let go of her hand to reach into the pellet bag, porkface saw it’s chance… chomp… couple of frantic seconds trying fruitlessly to get its jaws open… punch, punch… release… fingers very cut & bloody – but still there… phew.

Similarly, as if to further emphasise the validity of living in a perpetual state of uneasy caution, my generally-gung-ho little girl recently experienced a shocking realisation of her one ‘silly’ fear – the suspicion that, given half-a-chance, any nearby bird will try to peck her eyes out.
On a holiday to visit friends in Kuala Lumpur, we went to KL Bird Park (which claims to be the world's largest walk-in aviary). As she entered, timidly holding my hand, the very first thing she saw was the harrowing scene of a big heron lunging repeatedly at a small boy’s face with its beak. Understandably she spent the rest of the day wanting to be carried with her head pressed into my chest.
Then, in an attempt to perk her up and demonstrate how fun and friendly birds can be, my wife bought a cup of parrot feed and held it out in the hope that a couple would come to perch on her arm… within seconds she was engulfed by a frenzied cloud of bright red birds, screaming as they nipped various bits of her. This was not effective in alleviating our daughter’s distress.

Prior to these incidents, I’d found my little boy’s circumspect approach to life very frustrating. He has made a screaming hot-mess out of many a sledging trip, donkey ride (his love of horses seemingly only from afar) and trip to the toilet (a jittery mis-trust of hand-dryers meaning we currently always return wet-handed). For a long time he would sit down on his bum to descend any steps, no matter how small, rather than take on the miniscule risk of a tumble. And swimming lessons are an on-going challenge as any requirement for him to be on his back with ears in the water leads to howls of aversion.
In every activity we choose to do (or not do) there’s a risk vs. reward equation to consider and my growing fear was that, because my son seems to have a very low appetite for any risk, my hopes of us having some adventurous experiences together as the children get older may be scuppered. (“I know you’re terrified of sledging down that tiny mound by our house, but how would you feel about dog-sled polar bear safari?”) However, after the pig & bird skirmishes, I see that this was probably a selfish viewpoint. He’s little, but he’s not stupid and - hand-dryer mistrust aside - he’s generally only scared by things that hold a real (if remote) chance of harm or discomfort. Who am I to decree to him which activities are fun/interesting enough to warrant the risks they carry? He can watch and decide for himself... as he did surprisingly on holiday, laughing with glee for hours at a time while body-surfing in waves taller than his head*.

I have since found that the most effective approach for introducing new things to my children is to really emphasise the enjoyment that can be had to my little boy, which his natural caution can otherwise cause him to overlook… and to be sure that my little girl is fully aware of any potential dangers, which she would otherwise smash excitedly straight into – after that they’re free to choose for themselves. Mostly.

Since drafting this post ready to publish, my little girl has broken her arm by falling off a 6ft-high set of monkey bars**. On one hand this adds credence to my little boy’s safety-first outlook. On the other, it’s seemingly done nothing to reduce her enthusiasm for climbing/swinging/jumping. Despite having experienced the potential-downside first-hand, she can’t wait to be healed and allowed to play again. If you love Revels, you accept that you’ll sometimes get the raisin one.

* Which was really fun to do with him, but has since made the on-going commotion during swimming lessons even tougher to take

** She had conquered it numerous times before the falling incident. It was very important to her that I clarify this to you.

Learned Wisdoms

#54: If you were to become hazy on the boundary between real life and Angry Birds, a farm visit would be the main thing to avoid. The pigs would probably be fine (especially once you’d put helmets on them), but the chickens and hens you lob at them might be a little traumatised. As would the duck – especially when you berate it mid-arc for not boomeranging properly.

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