Why do we scare children?

Although I didn’t intend it, yesterday’s post had a slight Halloween flavour to it, and so I’ve decided to continue in the spirit of the holiday with a question today about why children believe in monsters, and why we torment young children with warnings about monsters.

Scary monster is scary. Photo: © Neillockhart | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

Evolutionarily, it’s a good thing that children pay attention to “monsters”. Humans are primed to pay attention to dangerous things that may want to eat us, because some of our ancestors’ earliest threats to survival were predators. Much of Nobuo Masataka’s work has discovered, for example, that we’re really good at spotting snakes. In fact, some of his most interesting work shows that women are quickest at spotting snakes during the premenstrual phase of their cycle, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another day (although I can’t help wondering if women get more of a thrill from horror movies right before their periods…).

Children often learn through play and imagination. Sometimes “play” involves “playing house”, “playing doctor”, or “playing get away from the monster that might eat you”. Growing up in my family in America’s Midwest, it involved “playing run for cover from the spinning tornado when you hear the air siren”, in which, as I was the eldest of 5 grandchildren, I nearly always got to be both the spinning tornado and the air siren, whereas the younger ones nearly always played the role of ear-splitting, screaming children not entirely sure if this is a real or pretend situation. I then nearly always got to play the role of nine-year-old child feeling she is too old for time-out but still sitting the time-out corner. In any case, all of my siblings and cousins are now well-rehearsed in correct procedures for dealing with a real tornado.

So if you’re going to try to scare your child with a monster story tonight, at least include in the story some coping strategies that the protagonist engaged in so that when your child plays out the story during recess tomorrow, they might rehearse some of those coping strategies, too.


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