The changing face of fear

5th October 2018 at 00:00
From something essential to our moral character to a quasi-medical condition, views on the role of fear in childhood are ever evolving, writes Frank Furedi

Since modern times, ideas about childrearing have always been influenced by the way that society perceived the role of fear in childhood. Until the middle of the 19th-century fear was perceived as not only a natural but also a necessary part of childhood. According to the guideline provided by the British-based Church Missionary Society to teachers in 1819: “It is necessary, that children fear the schoolmaster.” Fear was regarded as an indispensable instrument for building the moral character of a child and parents were instructed to regard this emotion as a normal feature of a healthy childhood.

Attitudes towards the role of fear in children’s lives began to alter in the second half of the 19th century. Commentators on both side of the Atlantic claimed that fear could cause great damage to children and advised parents to protect them from experiences that could make them feel fearful. Advocates of the new discipline of psychology insisted that fear constituted a serious threat to children’s wellbeing and exhorted parents to never display this emotion in front of their offspring. In 1920, the leading behavioural psychologist John B Watson asserted that the “main job of the parent should be to prevent fears, since some fears are extremely difficult to cure”.

The transformation of fear into serious threat to children’s wellbeing coincided with a growing tendency to indict parental behaviour for causing this problem in the first place. In his advice book The Education of Feeling (1872), the social reformer Charles Bray counselled parents against exposing children to their fears. “It is one of the strongest feelings in our nature, and caught perhaps more than any other sympathy; we ought therefore carefully to restrain our own unreasonable fears,” he said.

The idea that children could “catch” the emotion of fear from their parents was widely echoed by commentators and experts during the first half of the 20th century. “Fear states are contagious,” claimed John Anderson, the author of Happy Childhood, in 1933. Anderson added that the “first step in the control and elimination of fear is the maintenance by parents of a courageous attitude in the presence of their children”.

The association of poor parenting with the debilitating condition of children, devastated by the distressing impact of the emotion of fear, was underwritten by the authority of the new science of psychology. A statement by the pioneering psychologist G Stanley Hall that claimed the fears of children were generally caused by parents and servants was widely cited during the early decades of the 20th century.

The calls for isolating children from fear were integral to a fundamental reorientation towards the practice of childrearing. Parents were told to validate their children, to encourage them rather than reprimanding them or putting them under pressure.

These attitudes were also embraced by a section of the educational establishment, who argued that too much pressure on pupils would heighten children’s sense of anxiety and fear. Indirectly, the “modern” advice on childrearing often had the effect of making parents anxious about their competence to bring up a child successfully, leading them to offer validation of their child’s behaviour while reducing pressure and discipline.

Fear in the classroom

Rising concern with the supposed debilitating consequences of fear on the wellbeing of children led to demands for the adoption of a more sensitive and gentle approach towards the teaching of pupils.

In the US, the child studies movement campaigned for the curbing of homework. Progressive educators denounced it as a sin against childhood. Numerous school districts – especially in California – banned homework even in the early years of high school. Psychologists and medics, who supported the crusade against homework, claimed that “overstimulation” of the brain caused by doing homework in the evening would create problems with sleeping and lead to poor posture.

Through the growing influence of psychology over pedagogy, concerns about the fragility of children gained traction. Though the new psychological conception of childhood fragility gained influence, the debate over the management of children’s fears remained unresolved. The tension between parental ambition and the desire to maintain standards often conflicted with the demand for the adoption of a less academic and more therapeutic orientation towards teaching.

“Many boys and girls suffer greatly from fear,” warned an advocate of insulating children from the emotion of fear, in the Journal of Education in 1939. He added that: “I am ashamed to admit that school often makes the situation worse.” Numerous educators echoed the need to abolish fear from the classroom. In 1941, a contributor to the Peabody Journal of Education remarked that the “greater the fear, the greater the power of the inflexible teacher becomes”.

Despite the expanding influence of a medicalised narrative of pupil’s fears, many parents and teachers continued to rely on this emotion to influence the behaviour of children. “Fear is the root of all discipline,” declared William Plutte, a writer for the The Clearing House: a journal of educational strategies and ideas in 1948. Plutte asserted that “the well disciplined classroom is a result of Fear!” But by this time, Plutte was fighting a lost cause.

Since the 1950s, and especially since the 1970s, the imperative of shielding schoolchildren from fear has gained ascendancy in education. However, concern with children’s fragility continues to collide with the aspiration to encourage pupils to go beyond their comfort zone and stretch them academically.

Consequently, research on the pros and cons of using fear in the classroom continues to be a topic of interest to researchers to this day. Some academic researchers suggest that in some instances, fear appeals may constitute an effective medium for encouraging learning in children. One study claimed that the use of fear appeals by teachers in the mathematics classroom helped motivate students facing high-stakes examinations.

The question of the role of fear in education coexists with a far more vocal and prominent concern with the supposed fragility of childhood. Since the 1970s, these frailties have become constantly medicalised. Back in the 1950s, Benjamin Spock, the post-Second World War parenting expert most often accused of spoiling generations of Americans’ childhoods, was still wary of going too far in shielding children from fear. “A school-age child with a phobia must get back to school sooner or later,” he wrote in 1957. He advised mothers to consider whether their “overprotectiveness” was playing a part in exacerbating their child’s separation fears. Today, such separation fears are often diagnosed as school phobia. In numerous cases, the advice to parents of children diagnosed with separation fears is to educate them at home.

In recent decades, the tendency to portray the existential problem through the prism of mental health has acquired formidable proportions. The system of examination is often indicted for traumatising children. Increasingly, commenting on mistakes and criticising the quality of work provided by pupils is castigated as bad practice. Some schools have banned teachers from writing negative comments on exam papers. A claim made recently in a study by University of Oxford academics that hundreds of thousands of more British children are likely to need treatment for ADHD barely provoked a reaction. It is as if our fear of childhood has fostered a climate where we really do not expect young people to deal with the challenges they face.

And yet we still expect a lot from pupils. The tension between parents and teachers’ focus on achievement and fears for the wellbeing of children remains unresolved. As the US historian Peter Stearns explained, this tension is reflected in the following practice:

“Teach the children, but not too hard and with some attention to childhood frailties, accommodated through sympathetic grades or a bit of medication. In return we parents accept, on behalf of our children, the almost unavoidable challenge of getting into college, and in the process, facing some tests that cannot be entirely cushioned.”

Though anxiety drives the socialisation of children, the fears of childhood cannot be abolished. Instead of the futile project of attempting to create a fear-free world for children, society would do much better to help young people to learn to live with the emotion of fear.

Frank Furedi’s How Fear Works: the culture of fear in the 21st century is published by Bloomsbury Press

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