Suppose you were to ask a young child, 13 years old, to write down her answer to the question: what are you afraid of? Suppose she writes, in this order: Exams, death, losing parents. You might think this one child was unusually afraid of examinations. Now suppose you ask the same question of 300 children. What would you expect to find?
Earlier this year, the editors of the journal sent out a short survey to a handful of Indian schools. An attempt was made to select a range of schools, such as rural and urban, formal and non-formal, day school and residential, government and private. The questions were to be answered anonymously by students of Class 6 to Class 10, and were simple and straightforward, to do with specific situations in which they had felt fear (for example, Do you remember what happened in your body and in your mind?).

The children wrote so evocatively, so directly, touching the heart of what it is to be afraid. They expressed palpable, intense feelings: minds going blank, numbness, sweating, shaking, heart beating and, as one colourfully put it, ‘It felt like all the bones and muscles were outside my body.’

Most important for us to realize was that a large proportion of the children listed exams, tests, failure or poor performance, and various adults among their chief fears. Perhaps the juxtapositions were an accident of the format of the questionnaire, but there was something darkly comic about these responses—‘homework, tests and dangerous animals, ’ ‘the dark, math teachers and the deep parts of the swimming pool, ’ ‘natural disasters, Dad, teachers and tests’ and ‘God, snakes, some teachers’.

While children expressed many fears of a primordial nature, such as of darkness and death, it was clear that adults’ actions and adult-made structures constituted a large part of the list. It seems that we have injected a culture of fault-finding, judging and evaluation in almost whatever we do at home and in school. The child is constantly made to feel inadequate, not ‘measuring up’, and so on.

Is this inevitable? Though we cannot dispel darkness or banish death, we certainly can do something about punishment, failure in tests, humiliation, comparison, gratuitous criticism, and holding strong expectations. These powerful forces breed a pervasive insecurity that lingers with the young person, affecting her learning and decision making.
Many readers at this point may protest: ‘Isn’t some element of fear or pressure a natural and necessary part of life? Doesn’t the child need a bit of pressure to perform and progress?’ This is indeed a complex question, one that deserves close examination, both of the child and ourselves.

Fear is a primary emotion, one that we share with many creatures. Like other emotions, it serves an adaptive function, that of motivating us to move away from danger or avoid harm. From this point of view, fear seems to be a sensible and intelligent capacity of the organism. Indeed, one of the reasons that parents can begin to let a young child out of their sight for short periods is that the child will be afraid enough not to do foolishly risky things!

Many sources of fear for the young child are in the physical world, of darkness, heights, strangers, stuffed toys, loud sounds, physical pain, dogs, cows and insects. In addition to experiencing fear in the presence of these stimuli, children often feel fear in anticipation of the fearful stimulus—fear of the evening time when I will be homesick [in a residential school], fear of lunch time when I will have to eat those vegetables, fear of the walk home where I will encounter that dog. We could call this worry; it preoccupies the mind and impairs functioning outside the situation. This ‘ability’ to be afraid of something in anticipation develops slowly over childhood.

If we can speak, as psychologists do, of the childhood development of ‘normal fear’, what general patterns emerge from a century of research? First, that fear decreases in prevalence and intensity with age. Second, that specific fears (of specific situations or people) are transitory in nature. Third, there are changes in fear content, so that while infant fears are related to immediate, concrete stimuli, fears of late childhood and adolescence are related to anticipatory, abstract, and more global stimuli and events.

As children grow older, and begin school, more and more things in their world become potentially fearful. Many of these threaten injury to the ego, not to the body. The new fears seem to have a social origin, that is, they arise in relationship with other human beings. Abandonment, rejection, humiliation, loneliness, disapproval, failure, all provoke painful emotions such as sadness and shame. We saw a profusion of such fears in our survey. Perhaps children are afraid of painful emotions in the same way that one is afraid of a painful injection. But unlike the injection that lurks only in the doctor’s clinic, social threats are everywhere for the school-going child.

Several other factors account for the changes in children’s fears. Their cognitive abilities mature and they become more able to verbalize fears. Their ability to take the viewpoint of other people (parents, teachers, and peers) increases, and at the same time the importance of peer relations increases too, so that they are caught between conflicting peer and adult evaluation. The demands on school performance increase, raising fears of achievement evaluation among many adolescents.

Anticipatory fears or anxieties have a peculiar effect on the body. Unlike the smooth operation of the body’s reaction to imminent or present physical danger, the side effects of anxiety remain in the blood stream for long periods of time. Over time, this can lead to the phenomenon of stress. Sadly, young students nowadays are as stressed as the harried executive! Just as the executive feels that his boss is making unreasonable demands on him, with the threat of loss of job or demotion always hanging above, the student feels that if she cannot meet the adults’ expectations, she will lose their respect and even affection. This is, of course, an intolerable pressure on a child.

There are two reasons why the mechanical or deliberate use of fear and pressure are unacceptable. First there is the humanitarian reason. We are harming the psyche of a growing child—a powerful adult and a vulnerable child do not make a balanced equation. Second, there is ample evidence that a child in fear cannot learn or perform as well as a child who feels secure. Fear can cripple the growing mind, hence it is unable to flower and realize its full potential.

It’s time we took a hard and close look at our structures, both physical and psychological, and really face our children’s fears. From our survey, it seems that we have left them to fend for themselves in grappling with their fears. Thus they end up retreating, isolated, alone, crying their heart out. On the contrary, we should be helping them get out of this ‘universe of fear’.

Again, the reader may ask, won’t we become indulgent and pamper our children into mediocrity? Of course, we need to help the student build rigor, in academic and other areas. To this end, it is essential to make firm and clear demands on a student; but these have to be made in a relationship of affection and trust between the adult and child. Fear of our rejection and disapproval does not play a role here.

This is a fine line the adult needs to walk, more easily said than done. It calls for the creation of a different ethos at home and at school, beginning with an honest attempt at understanding our own compulsions and anxieties.