Monsters aren’t real… but sometimes they are

Guest post by Mark Freeman
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When I was a kid, I shared a bedroom with my two older brothers. I was several years younger than they are, so I had an earlier bedtime. I guess, like most boys, we weren’t the neatest of kids. Our dirty laundry piled up on the floor of our closet, where it would often overflow (read: teem) fairly quickly. This usually made it impossible for us to close the door, forcing it to remain ajar. I didn’t like the dark much as a kid, and my mom would leave our bedroom door open a crack and the hallway light on, to act as my nightlight. It did a very nice job of lighting the room just enough so I could see the closet, the open closet door, and the monsters waiting within its dark confines for me.

As I got older and my roommates moved out, I was no longer scared of the dark or the occupants of my closet, but my over active imagination was ever-present. I can still get my heart racing or imagine things watching me in the dark. The difference now is that I kinda like it. I enjoy being out in the dark at night. There’s something mysterious, magical, and… well, spooky, about it.

So it comes as no surprise that my youngest daughter has begun seeing monsters in the shadows and hiding places of her room at night. She, without question, has the bigger of the two imaginations between my daughters. Her older sibling has never been bothered much by the dark, or monsters lurking under her bed. As a matter of fact, she would prefer no nightlights and the door closed — keeping the hallway light from spilling into their room — so she could more fully enjoy their glow-in-the-dark constellations on their ceiling.

However, her little sister insists on the door being open. And even that added light and comfort does not always chase away her fears of monsters. Often enough, she’ll persuade her older sister to climb into bed with her, and we’ll find the two of them cuddling in the morning.

Many nights I am beckoned to her bedside to reassure her. I say, “I am just down the hall. You have nothing to fear. I am here and will protect you . I always will,” I tell her. “There are no monsters lurking in the dark.” I say these things. Even though a very big piece of me cringes. I promise her she is safe and that there are no such thing as monsters, but even as I say it, I feel the bitterness of the lie on my tongue.

It is a lie not because I won’t do everything I can to protect her, but because there are monsters in our world. Real ones. Ones that make those of faerie tales, make-believe, and my imagination seem almost Disney-esque in their villainy. They are the monsters that steal our children as they walk home from school or to the park, that intercept college students on their way back to their dorm rooms, or shoot 14-year-old girls in the head for blogging about their right to attend school.

Maybe it’s a small lie in the scheme of things. An Easter Bunny or Santa Claus fib to quell my daughter’s fears in the middle of the night. But… it is a lie, none the less. One that never sits well in my heart.

What concerns me more than the lie is my own inability in keeping the promise I make. There is nothing I wouldn’t do to protect my girls — no one I wouldn’t protect them from. No, that’s not what I fear. It is that I cannot be with her, them, every minute of every day. That is my fear. I fear the shadows for when they are alone, and I won’t be able to keep my promise. I am sure that many fathers have made similar promises to their children only to lose them to these monsters in our world. The thought has made me mistrust the night once more. Made me sleep less soundly and not trust the darkness. Maybe this is just a part of parenting, but I don’t like lying to my daughter, and I can’t abide the feeling that the monsters now have an upper hand.

It has become a scary world to me once more now that I have my own children. However, recently I found solace in realizing we’re not defenseless to the monsters in our world. So, as my daughter crawls into my bed or calls me into her room to defend her from the monsters lurking in the shadows, I’ll remind her from now on that the monsters fear her more than me. That her strength and goodness is her light, her shield, her weapon against any monsters in this world.

And I’ll remind myself that it is mine too.

Comments on Monsters aren’t real… but sometimes they are

  1. I was confronted by my son about my comforting “stories” recently. We were joking about some fantasy thing and he looked at me very seriously and said, “Everything you tell me has to be real.” He is 6 and he is actively dividing the world between real and pretend and I felt so bad that he pegged me as confusing the two on purpose. Of course the truth is that most of the time, when I tell no-totally-true stories, they are for my own sake. I *myself* to believe that I can’t possibly die while he still needs me (lie), that nothing violent could ever happen to him (lie), and that the world will be kind to him more often than not (possibly lie.)

  2. Yes, I totally understand this. My daughter is only 15 months old, but she is in a nannyshare every weekday and therefore every day I must suspend my own wild imagination and trust that she will be safe for another day. But I have a mantra that I repeat to myself when I find that I cannot stop thinking of all the things that could happen to her that I cannot control. We have a bedtime litany that I say to her each night, part of which involves how her daddy and I are there and we’ll do everything we can to make sure she’s warm and safe. I have to have these little processes to help with my own anxiety, which can be overwhelming if I let it.

    It’s actually reassuring to me that most other parents feel this kind of anxiety, that it’s normal to worry as I do. But man, so far it’s the hardest part of raising her! She is very much my heart.

  3. I was going to suggest more or less the same thing you came to at the very end of you piece: Instead of telling her that you will protect her, try to teach her that she can fight monsters. Maybe give her a stick or a flashlight (Monsters are afraid of light, right) and encourage her to go look in the closet and, if she finds any monsters, chase them away.

    Helping her to feel empowered to protect herself will hopefully help her feel safe from imaginary monsters so that she can sleep and is probably the best thing you can do to protect her from the real monsters, too.

    On that note, I really recommend Kidpower’s self defense courses for children (http://www.kidpower.org/), if they have courses in your area. They are a great organization. Or at least they were when I took classes from them as a child and as a teen. They teach physical self defense by having the kids practice hitting and kicking an instructor in a padded suit and also teach skills for things like dealing with bullies, setting and maintaining boundaries and dealing with adults you who are making you uncomfortable.

    • Or alternately, if you don’t want to encourage your children in imaginary violence, you could teach them to talk to their closet monsters, find out what they really want and make friends with them.

      Coolest imaginably friend ever! And a different important life skill.

      I am not really sure which of the approaches I like better. I don’t have children yet to try them on and I’m not sure which one would have worked better with me as a child.

      • Love this approach and idea, Sarkat! I’m all for empowering my girls, and I have two of the toughest and bravest around, but I really love this idea of talking it out and making friends. Thank you!

  4. When our girls are worried about monsters, they call the dogs in and tell them to seek. The dogs love it and the girls are convinced that the dogs eat the monsters.

    As for the real monsters, we’ve taught our girls about recognising appropriate/inappropriate behaviours in others as well as clear communication and basic self-defence. All we can do is our best, and hope that is enough.

      • Yes! Our dogs work as a team to ‘clear’ the room, Danny goes back downstairs afterwards while Hailie dozes on the floor until the girls are asleep, and then she comes to spend time with me. It’s lovely.

  5. This post perfectly sums up everything I have been feeling in the last few days. I hug my baby tight, but I know I can’t protect him from everything and it’s heartbreaking. But all the best things in life happen when we overcome our fears, right?

  6. This post reminded me of a quote I’m fond of. I’m afraid I can’t remember who said it originally, I got it from an episode of “Criminal Minds” that my daughter has on DVD (From memory, forgive me if the wording isn’t exact.):
    “Children do not need fairy tales to tell them that monsters are real. Children know monsters are real. Children need fairy tales to tell them that monsters can be defeated.”

    Regarding ‘the monsters in the closet’; when she was little, daughter had a stuffed unicorn or two who defended her with their unicorn magic. It’s surprising how effective stuffed unicorn magic is. Stuffed dragons are equally protective.

  7. This is one of the hardest things to try and come to grips with as a parent-the fact that we send them off into this world and we can’t protect them from everything that may harm them. How we CAN help them ,though, is to not worry about what COULD hurt them in the world-but to help them enjoy the world for the wonderful things it has to offer. My daughter is getting to the age where she is also realizing the difference between fantasy and reality and all I can hope for now is that monsters in the closet is the worst she has to deal with as a child.

  8. Human beings who do terrible things aren’t ‘monsters’, though. They’re human beings who do terrible things. It’s an understandable instinct, to want to boot someone who’s done something incomprehensibly appalling out of the human race. It’s understandable to want to find a dividing line as clean as species between people who do these things and the rest of us. Unfortunately, there isn’t one; and while inventing one is comforting, I’m not sure it’s ultimately helpful, to children or to adults.

    To give one reason: in fact, statistically speaking, most murders, sexual assaults and abuse are not committed by ‘monstrous’ strangers lurking in parks but by people the victim knows well, people close to them, often people the victim trusted, even loved. While this is a very very disturbing fact, I also believe it’s worth thinking through. For a start, when people believe that everyone who does scary things is out there in the dark, it does not aid them in taking their child seriously when the child comes to them with a story of abuse from a family member, a teacher, or a trusted friend. If you believe abusers are two-headed monsters lurking out there in the night, then how can you ever believe that they might be someone you know and trust?

    • Thanks for your response!

      I never meant to exclude the monsters in our midst from humanity. My point was that monsters walk among us. That no matter what I tell my daughter, I know that bad people, or “monsters” as I called them, really do exist.

      Obviously, I don’t share my concerns about the worst of our kind w/ my already scared daughter. I, personally, don’t believe in dragons or trolls, but do believe that humans behave quite monstrously at times.

      I was not trying to paint bad people w/ horns or fangs, but rather explain my own fears of the worst of mankind while assuaging my daughters more imaginative fears.

      Thank you for your feedback!

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