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21 October 2011 ·

Children’s fears, real and imaginary

On a school visit yesterday, I read The Princess and her Panther to the youngest group before talking about the power of our imaginations and how we can combat our own imaginary fears. 
One girl volunteers the perfect lead in, saying that sometimes her toys throw shadows that make her afraid in the night.
We discuss on what the real things were that the girls were afraid in the story: the snakes on the roof of the tent are leaves, the witch is an owl, the monster’s a frog…  the wolf is the puppy next door. 
‘But the dog might really bite you,’ says one boy.
I talk about dog safety: Never pat a dog without asking the owner’s permission, etc. ‘But most dogs are good, and if the owner says you can pat it, it should be okay.’
‘But if it’s a pit bull it still might bite you,’ says another boy.
I agree that some dogs are vicious; we have to be careful. ‘But we can see in the picture this is a friendly dog that lives next door.’
‘The dog next door to my aunt came in to her yard and killed her dog,’ says a girl. I can do nothing but sympathise, say that’s a very sad story, and decide that’s enough dog stories for one session. 
The truth is that we can’t dispel all children’s fears, because some fears are valid and essential for safety. Children do need to know how to behave around dogs, and how to recognise a vicious or nervous dog that may snap. The child whose aunt’s pet was killed will never forget the horror of that story. 
But in general, I can’t help wondering if we’re overburdening very young children with fears of every aspect of life.  We worry about them falling off swings or failing at music lessons, limiting the development of resilience, and yet often encourage them to worry about world disasters, present and future. 
I don’t have any answers. I’m just wondering. 

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Wendy Orr is a Canadian-born Australian writer. Her books for children and adults have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Nim’s Island and Nim at Sea have also become feature films, starring Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island) and Bindi Irwin (Return to Nim’s Island.) Her latest book is Cuckoo’s Flight, a companion to the highly acclaimed Bronze Age novels Dragonfly Song and Swallow’s Dance. Read full bio