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Monday, May 2, 2011

Bloodsuckers, Arches, and Paranoia, oh my!

My kids and I at the pre-Delicate-Arch arch. This is the climb that induced a
panic attack which still hasn't gone away completely more than a week later.
The woman walked past our little family with a smile on her flushed face. She looked at my 8-months pregnant wife holding our 3-year-old son's hand with our supplies on her back. She looked at me carrying a huge camera bag on front and a kid backpack on back with a 2-year-old girl that just wanted to be on my shoulders anyway. She internalized we had come roughly two miles on a steep trail under such circumstances.

“I guess I need to stop complaining now,” she said to us. We politely laughed. She was probably the third person that had said that exact thing to us that day.

We were in Arches National Park for our reprieve from car shopping (more on that in later posts). We had just finished hiking to Delicate Arch – you know, the iconic one. It was beautiful, we loved it except for one thing: paranoia. And that in abundance.

Going to Delicate Arch involves hiking along a trail literally carved into the red rock on the side of a cliff. This got our son, who tends to believe his mother when she warns him how scary the world is, a bit skittish. This was made worse by the fact that he got a little bit stranded on the the arch you can climb up into before you reach the main one. Being the good daddy I am, I wanted pictures with my family inside the arch looking out at Delicate Arch. So I dutifully carried my daughter to the arch against her will and encouraged my son to make the sketchy scramble.

With exuberance he started toward Daddy. However, when he made it more than halfway up, he realized he didn't know how to go up or down and he went into freak out mode, whimpering in a hystercially scared voice, complete with hyperventilation. I ran to the rescue and pulled him up into the arch, where it happened to be very windy...right next to a cliff. Bad combination. I coaxed a smile out of the boy anyway for the picture that a Japanese guy offered to take for us.

So after returning to the relative safety of the cliff-side path, our son was a little anxious about putting one foot in front of the other. We really had to goad him upward. And then, after 1.5 miles of upward stop-and-go with easily distracted children, we came out at the main viewpoint for Delicate Arch. The splendor. The beauty. The delicateness (delicatessen?) The child in total freak out mode thinking the wind will sweep him into the awaiting chasm.

Yeah, that last bit didn't conjure a long stay at the arch viewpoint. Meanwhile, our daughter just sought refuge from the stiff wind behind a ledge we pointed out. She was totally nonplussed. As we reluctantly hauled our whimpering child back down the path, I tried to figure out why he flipped out so much. Yes, he's small. Yes, the wind was fast. Yes, he was safe anyway. Yes, we told him that. No, did he listen.

So to allow other hikers to enjoy their moment in the crowded park, we skedaddled. Down the mountain went a lot faster than up.
Notice the shadow of the person standing in the Arch.
This is the double arch in Arches National Park. Way
fun to photograph at sunset.

I have never quite figured out why he urgently needed to leave that situation. I've never seen him so horrified. Not even during the part in Sleeping Beauty where the witch turns into a dragon.

I think I found one of the root causes a few days later after returning home though. Now that some of the snow has melted off our yard (see this post), mosquitoes have come out in force. Two summers ago, when we introduced our son to mosquitoes, this was his reaction. Now, two years later, having been spoon fed reasons to be scared of the world, this is what happened.

Us: <Driving into the driveway>

Mommy: Oh no, there's bloodsuckers on the windshield. Kids, see these bugs? They'll eat you. You better run as fast as you can to get to the house.

Son: Can we just stay in here?

Daddy: Mommy! Kids, there's nothing to be afraid of, we'll just go in the house.

Kids: <Believing Mommy>

Daddy: <Goes and unbuckles the daughter, who walks calmly to the door through a small cloud of mosquitoes.>

Mommy from car: Hurry! Run inside so the mean bloodsuckers don't get you!

Daddy: <Eyes roll so far back they do a loop-de-loop inside my face and I oddly find myself looking straightforward again. I unbuckle the boy.>

Son: <Frantically fights the hand I have around his wrist, sprints up the stairs to front door, yanks the handle down and throws his shoulder into the still-locked door multiple times, jiggling the handle as hard and fast as he can manage. He nearly starts crying in his hysteric dance. He probably bruises his poor shoulder, possibly squishing some of the bloodsuckers in the process.>

Daddy: You seeing this Mommy? Great job with the scare tactics. Son? It's OK, the bugs can't really hurt you. Calm. Down. Please.

I've never seen anything quite like it. It was like a scene in a movie where a guy in a bike is getting chased by a turbo-charged tank. This kid thought his life was truly at risk between the car and the house. I'm almost surprised he didn't perform a James Bond diving roll somewhere on the way.

So that brings me to the point. Don't use scare tactics on your children. It backfires. It's easy to do. I catch myself doing it all the time. (“Daddy, can I have another snack before we go to Grandma's?” “No, your stomach will swell to the size of a beach ball and we'll have to roll you to the car, where we'll have to pop you to make sure you fit in your car seat.” Oops. Guilty.)

The problem is, for better or worse, your kids trust you. So if you tell them two conflicting things, they will probably believe the worst-case scenario of the two. Which is why when our son was bashing his shoulder to break down the front door, he still believed Mommy's “bloodsucker” statements, not Daddy's cool-down, easy-voice reassurances.

This is one I have to be careful with because I tend to be a lot like Calvin's dad from Calvin and Hobbes. Yeah, I make stuff up if I don't know the answers.

Which is exactly what I do with this column.

No wait, just forget I said that. I don't want to use scare tactics on you to keep you from reading this.


  1. Very nice post, Mark. With six kids now, I have been there and am still fighting the regular urge to use scare tactics to make things easier.

  2. Thank you. Short-term solutions are just that, and inspire unintended consequences too often. Why can't long-term solutions just be a little easier?