Life, from early childhood on, is an education in fear and we are becoming more afraid daily - - forget happiness.


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, October 23, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at

"Are you scared?" – Playgrounds and Hobgoblins

Since I last described my grandson's development on the playground, he has - at age 2 ½ - progressed nicely. Last week, he played with a series of children who came and went at his Queens playground, adjusting his play to fit in with the quiet girl, the rowdy boys, and - lastly - two older women, ages around 4.

Actually, they ran every time he came near. To make sense of the situation, he pretended he was a monster that they were trying to escape. When one finally stopped long enough for him to approach her, he asked, "Are you scared?"

I believe he was trying to determine if his actions were scarifying (and also how much power he has to scare others). For much of childhood is about determining what is worth being scared of. Just saying "boo" works with most kids. Things we now recognize as nothing to be afraid of sets them off.

Except, at the same time, we - some more than others - retain many of the first fears we had. That is, after all, the logic behind putting some actor in a mask to play Freddy Krueger - who otherwise would just be some jerky psychopath.

Much of early CBT was based on cue exposure - putting people in the path of milder versions of the things that frightened them irrationally. (Remember Jimmy Stewart walking up the steps of Midge's ladder to overcome his Vertigo?) On the other hand, there was behaviorist pioneer John Watson's nefarious "Little Albert" experiment, where he exposed a baby to a white rat accompanied by a loud clang - which made Albert ever-after afraid of small furry animals.

What isn't remembered about the series of experiments now is that Albert wasn't afraid of anything he was exposed to - including fire. Kids have to learn what is worth being frightened about. In other words, childhood is an education in fear. And the playground - where kids used to run around freely, but are now supervised by their ever-worried, ever-vigilant caretakers, is the preschool for fear.

At the same time, we must note that Halloween - a celebration when kids were exposed to obviously hokey goblins and demons that they thus learned were fictions - has become a day (a) for more warnings than we can handle about bad things that can befall kids, (b) a chance for even young children to be sexualized (and yet childhood sex is one of the things we are most afraid about - see below).

Fast forward to adulthood. I met a woman who was attending a weekend workshop on living fearlessly. I was fascinated to hear about this - which rang a lot truer to my ears than Seligman's vaunted efforts at teaching people to be happy. Because, for every brief moment spent meditating on - or attending some seminar about - happiness, even as adults, we are constantly relearning old fears, and new things to be frightened about.

We are constantly being told there are any number of things we didn't know we needed to fear, but that we do - dangerous foods, predators attacking children on the Internet, teen sex altogether, ritual sex abuse (notice sex is a big topic in the fear hierarchy?), people stealing our identities, and on and on. We aren't aware, it turns out, of even a fraction of the things that can do us and our children in. And that's why we have become so protective of our children - thus guaranteeing ever-more-fearful future generations!

Political advertising, too, is a matter of instilling fear - of associating frightening ideas, policies, and images with a political opponent - most of which are hyped up travesties of something the person once said or voted on (so that, as politicians, they can become afraid of saying or doing anything noteworthy).

Yes, overcoming fear is the key to freedom. In which case, even the most fearless of us are (not counting psychopaths and politicians) are enslaved.