What Is Brave?

I have a kid who is afraid to watch movies. Some kids are afraid of the dark, some kids are afraid of dogs. I used to work in an indie bookstore that houses a highly refined, very friendly cat. One day two twin girls who were about three or four came in, saw the cat, and started screaming and crying inconsolably. Hard enough to make every adult who wasn’t their parent quietly giggle into their hand. The cat was insulted and left the room (which didn’t even ease the crying because He Was Still In The Building). Yeah, some kids are afraid of cats. Some don’t like clowns or spiders or costumed characters. My kid fears the silver screen. She’s patient enough to watch a 90-minute movie but says that she always ends up dreaming about movies after she watches them. And suspenseful movies scare her because she worries too much about the characters.

Suspenseful here is a relative term. When she was very small, she didn’t like Milo and Otis, the story of a cat and a pug dog who accidentally get lost and have a long journey back home. It’s a nice little movie with no human actors, just live action animals who “talk.” But when Milo (or was it Otis? Anyway, the cat) is on a raft and a bear is lurking about, my daughter was in tears because she worried the bear was going to get the cat. When we saw Arthur Christmas (in which Santa’s younger son manages to save the day), she spent the entire movie worried that the little girl wouldn’t get her Christmas present. We were fine with Matilda until the principal showed up. Finding Nemo? Forget it. Between the sharks and the lampfish, she didn’t make it through the first half hour.

My daughter and I have talked about how the hero in a movie always has a problem she or he has to work through. She knows this intellectually, but she also knows that images from the movie are going to stay with her and make it hard to sleep. Her simple solution is not to watch the movie in the first place. Plato said “Know thyself.” She knows herself. That’s pretty good for a seven-year-old.

Whether it’s a movie or a novel or a picture, every story is a journey in which the main character goes somewhere or does something and, one hopes, is changed in the process. My daughter’s journey has taken her from an orphanage half a world away to a family with two parents who are crazy about her, a couple of stupid dogs who think she’s another big puppy, and extended family and friends who think she’s the cat’s pajamas. She’s a brave little kid. It may sound funny to say “My child is brave” when she’s too scared to watch a movie. But the list of things that scare her is much shorter than the list of things that don’t scare her. She is brave enough to swim in the deep end of the pool. She is brave enough to go up to a girl she doesn’t know at the playground and ask if she wants to play. She is not afraid of the dark, the school bus, new foods, new places, or the lion in the Chinese lion dance. She is brave enough to touch and talk about the dead robin we found buried in the back yard. She is brave enough to talk to a friend whose father just died. She is brave enough to ask questions about her birth parents and accept that we don’t have many firm facts to give her.

If you happen to have a child with an irrational fear of, say, cats (or dogs or asparagus), don’t sweat it. I’m not going to attempt to use this piece to teach you how to make your kid brave because we all have something that scares us. Just remember that the list of things that doesn’t scare us will always be longer.

–by Susan Petrone


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