Fear is a scary thing. It is the only emotion where there is really no answer. Nobody knows why or how it happens but it does. It is the thing which grips your stomach like a claw. It is the reason you stay up at night thinking to yourself. It is the never-ending question of doubt of yourself and reality. It is the mental cancer that infects us all; a disease that can never be cured but only contained.
To a large extent, we are alone in our fears. Sure, we can fear terrorists, the government or the New York Yankees as a unified group but most are left up to our own psyches and the therapists who steal our money pretending to understand them. Some fears are somewhat explainable such as thunder and lightning – unless you or someone you know has been struck by a bolt from the blue. Then it’s pretty real. Fears of government are mostly irrational – unless you’ve ever been interrogated or audited by the I.R.S. Clowns, on the other hand…are sometimes just clowns. Yet, an invention designed to bring joy to children has been thrust into the completely creepy category over the past few decades. Before Stephen King tapped into coulrophobia with “It”, this phenomenon had been manifesting itself for centuries. Irrational? Possibly. Real? Absolutely.
The newest phobia, as far as I understand it, is the fear of animatronic toys; called automatonophobia (makes sense if you break it down English-style). This fear includes (but is not limited to) ventriloquist dummies, Muppets, Talking Smack Elmo and pretty much every preschool toy available at your local Target and Wal-Mart. They’re everywhere, if you think about it enough. “Talkie Tina” has been reincarnated as your daughter’s best friend Dora and is secretly working with Chucky’s son “Baby Tad” to turn your humble home into the Amityville Horror. My kids are about 50/50 on these. They both love “Baby Tad” but some gifts have left them bug-eyed and terrified. They really sound like a doomed soul is stuck inside them.
The automated toys which tend to terrify my children are the ones my wife and I bought for personal amusement. We purchased a signing Dean Martin years ago (something we thought was pretty darn cool) but Shane and Romana can’t sit for one second in a room when Dino is working his robotic mojo. My “A” in Psychology 115 qualifies me enough to deduce that the moving hands, mouth and feet of this 2 ½ foot toy causes them to question reality as they know it, the challenge of their perceived reality being too strong to rationalize a talking robot. In other words, it’s just too damn creepy.
A little over a month ago, I started noticing my five year old, Shane, closing the porch door. At first, I thought he was responding to months of winter nagging in hopes of keeping the house warm. I then moved to the idea that he might be getting amusement out of locking the cats in there as they tend to do something they shouldn’t do and Shane has realized statements involving the word “poop” are intrinsically funny. During a night of scary Doctor Who, I decided to ask him why he was about to shut the door. He pointed to a corner of the porch. There they were, on top of a bookshelf. “The hamsters?” I asked. “Uh-huh,” said Shane, not wanting to look at them any longer than they had to. A trio of singing hamsters which were part of a novelty craze about a decade ago. These foot-tall vertical rodents would dance and sing “chipmunk-style” to a popular tune. They were also costumed to fit the song. The Tom Jones hamster has the big early 70’s afro as he gyrates to “It’s Not Unusual.” The Brady Bunch hamster has the big early 70’s Greg Brady/Barry Williams afro as it sings the theme to its TV show namesake (why they didn’t choose “It’s a Sunshine Day” is a mystery). The “Kung Fu Fighting” hamster is unfortunately not dressed like Carl Douglas but like the original Karate Kid – except there’s a nunchuck in place of a hand. Admittedly, the last hamster is creepy but the others epitomize the good, clean fun of the 1970’s. What’s wrong with that?
As a parent and horror aficionado, I could sympathize with Shane’s fear. I used to live in a house next to a small forest where a windy night could cause me to watch the clock until I was no longer capable. I often hid underneath covers to protect myself against all the undefinable noises which bashed against my bedroom window. To my best recollection, I never had a good night’s sleep until I moved. No parent wants their child to be scared - except for strangers, moving vehicles, academic failure and the government. Parents want to protect their children from everything and anything, be it real or imaginary. To a certain extent, the real stuff is easier. You can explain it, be the comforting hero and hug your little one to make it better. The unreal stuff, that’s a bit tougher. The fear may not be real to you but it is as real to them as the sun. Dismissing it risks a loss of faith in you, acknowledging it risks perpetuating it into therapy. There is no correct choice, only a decision based on how we view ourselves and reality itself.
I chose to grab a grocery bag and imprison the singing hamsters in a forcefield lying deep in an upstairs closet. As I locked the hamsters into the negative zone, I knew wouldn’t always be able to take away my children’s fears but I resolved to do it as long as I possibly could. Throughout our lives, we will be forced to deal with fears and struggles which will not go away. They keep us up, clench our stomachs and question our beliefs. Children shouldn’t have to do this. Although pain and sadness is inevitable, it is how we handle it which will in turn mold their reactions as well. When my son wants to be everybody’s friend, saying “Hi” to everyone on the street, I feel blessed to have a child with such a giving heart. Eventually, this precious heart will get hurt, and I will do my best to take that hurt away. I will not always be able to help, but I’ll do my best to try.
When the time comes that Daddy can’t imprison the evil, singing hamsters of life and the fears of the imagination become the fears of reality, the one thing I can still do is not destroy the belief that I love him. Whether my children will always believe it or not, I have been and always will be their friend. There are always scary forests and hamsters lurking for each and every one of us. Our choice as adults, even in the face of fears and doubts which are far too real, is to protect and love our children to the greatest extent possible. Children are a gift from God. Our problems should never become theirs. We may not be able to sustain their faith, but in no form should we ever try to break it. To do so would resemble dropping a rock into a pond and watching it shatter.
The banishment of the hamsters didn’t work. Shane still closes the porch door. He doesn’t want to elaborate on the whys and wherefores. Whatever it is, it’s still there. He still climbs in our bed and sleeps well, making it something not defeated but postponed. Shane woke up today with a smile on his face and a desire to cuddle with Daddy. We shared giggles and warmth on a June morning. My three year old, Romana, had been up far too early and wanted to pounce on her own adventure of camping, castles and monsters (Shane is usually the monster). For this one day, I protected him from the Romanamonster. As we laughed into each others eyes, I knew the day will come when the hugs, cuddling and protecting will end. The smile, the love, the pieces of the soul which last forever, I hold to myself like a diamond.