Monday, April 01, 2019

Knowing The Right Thing To Do

We played in the street in front of our suburban homes when I was a boy growing up in the 1960's. One day, our neighbor, Mr. Sain, a former military officer, called us into his garage, he had something to show us. There against the wall was the carcass of a good sized rattlesnake that he had just beheaded with a garden hoe. We had all been shown photos of these deadly reptiles, but he wanted us to see this real one so that if we ever saw one we would know to stay away and tell an adult.

As a boy in Columbia, South Carolina, adults wanted us to know how to identify rattlesnakes and rabid dogs, two things from our "natural" habitat that could kill us. They let us play in the street (although in fairness, they did warn us about the busier Macon Road that formed a T intersection with the end of our cul-de-sac), but they worried more about snake venom and rabies. Mr. Sain even demonstrated how one could save the life of a friend by sucking the venom out of a bite, something experts no longer recommend. We were warned to never play in the crawl space under the house for fear of snakes. Pet owners didn't necessarily keep their dogs in fenced yards or on leashes back in those days either, so we were warned to keep an eye out for strays that seemed to be staggering or frothing at the mouth, and if we saw one we were to stay away and tell an adult.

I've since lived in many places and visited many more, and no matter where I've been there are special deadly hazards with which the locals, including their children, have learned to live. Often they are of the natural variety like snakes, spiders, crocodiles or poisonous plants, while increasingly we are warning children about human created hazards like traffic, predators, and discarded syringes. We owe it to our children to warn them of these things and our tendency is to exaggerate their danger by way of making our points. And a certain amount of exaggeration is probably appropriate, but it is possible to go overboard.

To this day, I have an irrational fear of snakes. I can't blame Mr. Sain, but his demonstration probably didn't help matters. The other day, a boy was reduced to panicked bawling as we walked though an earthquake drill. When we discussed the importance of not touching discarded syringes the other day, some of the children began to talk about being afraid of getting shots at the doctor's office. Some of them have had the dangers of lighters so drilled into them that they ran away when I used one to light our jack-o-lanterns at Halloween.

It's inevitable that some children will be more prone to fear responses than others. Indeed, as you read through the above paragraphs, there were likely some of these listed hazards that triggered your own sense of fear more than others. Nevertheless, it's important that we talk about these things because nothing will keep a child safer than being able to identify hazards and knowing what to do about them. I'll admit that there have been times when I've avoided topics for fear of setting a child off: for instance I once taught a girl with such a strong phobia about fire that any discussion of it would incapacitate her, but for everyone's safety I knew that I couldn't avoid the discussion.

My goal is to remain calm and matter-of-factual, to keep things simple, and to give the children ample opportunity to share their own thoughts and fears even if they do tend to stray from the central topic. It's important that I know which children will tend to overreact, to cry, to be fearful, so that I'm prepared for that should a real emergency occur. And it's important to repeat these messages on a regular basis, not because we fear these hazards, but because we want everyone to know we can manage them together by all of us knowing the right thing to do.

That said, I've never seen a wild rattlesnake other than the one Mr. Sain showed us. To my knowledge I never encountered a rapid dog. Contracting diseases from accidental needle pricks is exceedingly rare as is the risk of being abducted by a stranger. Everyone, every day, lives with these hazards and potential hazards, but the important thing is knowing what to do so that we can live, as much as we can, without fear. Knowledge is greater than fear.

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