Q: Because he is afraid of sharks, my fourth-grade son does not want to participate in an upcoming school field trip to an aquarium. In all other respects, he is perfectly normal. He’s a great student, has lots of friends, and other parents and teachers love him. He doesn’t give us or his teachers any problems at all. So, should we make him go on this field trip or not? If he doesn’t go, he’ll have to sit in the principal’s office all day long. The only other option is to let him stay home that day. Your thoughts?
A: For the most part, I don’t believe that adults should make accommodations in response to a school-age child’s irrational fears, though I do make certain exceptions for certain fears in toddlers and preschoolers. I agree that the fear of sharks that are contained in an aquarium is irrational. Dragging your son kicking and screaming into the ocean would be an egregious breach of parenting protocol, but this is a far different matter.
You should simply tell him that he has no choice but to go on the field trip. His fear of sharks does not qualify him as a special-needs student. Suggest that he close his eyes when the class enters the shark exhibit. He most definitely should not be allowed to request that one of the adults going on the field trip stay outside the exhibit with him, and you should definitely communicate that expectation to his teacher.
Generally speaking, one of the most counterproductive things parents can do is try to talk children out of their irrational fears. That very well intentioned attempt is likely to make matters worse rather than better. The more you talk to your child about his fear of sharks—including any effort to reassure him that the sharks are fully contained and that the tanks won’t suddenly break and release a contagion of air-breathing, finwalking, man-eating sharks into the museum—the more likely it is that the fear will become a self-fulfilling drama, a personal soap opera your child will employ to attract undue attention to himself and control various situations.
Simply tell your son, “After much thought as well as consultation with a psychologist who has devoted his career to the study and treatment of children’s fears, we’ve decided that you are going on the school trip to the aquarium. You have our permission to close your eyes when the class goes into the shark exhibit, but you do not have our permission to inconvenience your teacher or any other adult to stay outside the shark exhibit with you because of your fear.”
If he persists in trying to persuade you to change your mind, sit down in a comfortable chair and say, “Now that I’m comfortable, you have my permission to try your best to make me change my mind. I will listen to anything you have to say.”
After he makes his best attempt to get you to reconsider your decision, simply say, “I’m sorry, but you’re just not persuasive enough. You are going on the field trip. Do you have anything else you’d like to say?” Listen as long as need be, but keep saying, “Nice try, but you’re still going on the field trip.” He will give up within ten minutes, and it will be ten minutes well spent.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.