Q: Because he is afraid of sharks, my son, a fourth-grader, 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 his teachers or us 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: I don't generally believe that adults should make accommodations in response to a school-age child’s irrational fears (I make certain exceptions for certain fears in toddlers and preschoolers), and a fear of aquarium-contained sharks is certainly 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 your son 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 closes 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.
More generally, one of the most counterproductive things parents can do is try to talk children out of irrational fears. Paradoxically, that sort of well-intentioned attempt is likely to make matters worse. The more parents talk to a child about fears — in this case, any attempt on your part to reassure your son that the sharks are fully contained and that the tanks won’t suddenly break and release a contagion of air-breathing, fin-walking, man-eating sharks on the city — the more likely it is that the fear will become a self-drama, a personal soap opera the 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 of aquarium sharks, we've decided you're 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 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’re 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.