Freeing Our Kids from Fearthought

My daughter Erin went through a brief period at age 8 when she would literally dissolve into tears at bedtime but was unwilling to discuss it. The morning after one such nighttime session, we were lying on the trampoline together, looking at the sky, and I asked if she would tell me what was troubling her.

"Did you do something you feel bad about, or hurt somebody's feelings at school?" I asked. "There's always a way to fix that, you know."

"No," she said. "It isn't something I did."

"Something somebody else did? Did somebody hurt your feelings?"

"No." A long silence. I watched the clouds for awhile, knowing it would come.

At last she spoke. "It isn't anything I did. It's something ... I thought."

I turned to look at her. She was crying again.

"Something you thought? What is it, sweetie?"

"That's OK, you don't have to say. But what's the problem with thinking this thing?"

"It's more than one thing." She looked at me with a worried forehead. "It's bad thoughts. I think about saying things or doing things that are bad. Like ..."

I waited.

"Like bad words. That's one thing."

"You want to say bad words?"

"NO!!" she said, horrified. "I don't at ALL!! But I can't get my brain to stop thinking about this word I heard somebody say at school. It's a really nasty word and I don't like it. But it keeps popping into my brain, no matter what I do, and it makes me feel really, really bad!!"

She cried harder, and I hugged her. "Listen to me, Erin. You are never bad just for thinking about something. Never."

"What? But ... if it's bad to say a bad word, then it's bad to think it!"

"But how can you decide whether it's bad if you don't even let yourself think it?"

She stopped crying in a single wet inhale, and furrowed her brow. "Then . . . It's OK to think bad things?"

"Yes. It is. It's fine. Erin, you can't stop your brain from thinking — especially a huge brain like yours. And you'll make yourself crazy if you even try."

"That's what I'm doing! I'm making myself crazy!"

"Well, don't. Listen to me now." We went forehead to forehead. "It is never bad to think something. You have permission to think about everything in the world. What comes after thinking is deciding whether to keep that thought or to throw it away. That's called your judgment. A lot of times it's wrong to act on certain thoughts, but it is never, ever wrong to let yourself think them." I pointed to her head. "That's your courtroom in there, and you're the judge."

The next morning she woke up excitedly and gave me a high-speed hug. Once she had permission to think the bad word, she said, it just went away. She was genuinely relieved.

Imagine if instead I had saddled her with traditional ideas of mind-policing, the insane practice of paralyzing guilt for what you cannot control—your very thoughts. Instead, I taught her what freethought really means.

In the years since that day, Erin has often mentioned that moment. She has said it's the best thing I ever did for her. As with most such moments, I had no idea at the time that I was giving her anything beyond the moment itself. I just wanted her to stop crying, to stop beating up on herself. But in the process, it seems, I genuinely set her free.

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