My four-year-old grandson is a spirited kid. And I mean that in the best and worst way possible.
He is sensitive and imaginative. He can be inflexible and obstinate. He is tender and compassionate. He is argumentative and frustrating. He finds joy in the littlest things. He gets pissed off at the littlest things.
In other words, he’s a normal four-year-old.
He deals with a lot, as normal kids do, but at this exact moment in time, his biggest issue is really sh*tty. And I mean that literally. The issue is poop; more specifically, refusing to poop in a toilet.
This is completely understandable at age two, frustrating at age three, and downright maddening at age four.
Recently, he visited me with his exhausted parents and his two-week-old sister. I’m pretty sure he hadn’t pooped in a couple of days, and I could tell he needed to go.
I watched as he walked over to the cabinet where I’ve always kept the diapering supplies, and thankfully, amongst the recently purchased, itty-bitty newborn diapers I had just stocked, I still had some leftover diapers big enough to fit him. He rifled through my previously organized stash, and helped himself to one—just like any independent, self-sufficient four-year-old boy who needs to poop would do.
He got himself adequately outfitted, then went out to the backyard to do his business privately, which we greatly appreciated. He was out there for quite some time, hitting trees with sticks and acting out whatever good guy/bad guy scenario he had in his head at the moment, something involving Lego Batman, The Avengers, and Harry Potter—lots of superpowers.
Finally, he looked toward the house, and, with resignation on his face, started the long walk back.
When he came in, I discreetly asked him if he wanted me to help him clean up in the bathroom. Quietly, he said yes. I could tell he felt self-conscious about the whole process. As we’re doing our thing, I gently ask him why he doesn’t like to sit on the potty.
Him: “I don’t like it.”
Me: “You don’t like it?”
Me: “Is it scary?”
Him: “Yes! I have the superpowers of scary!”
Me: (repeating him stupidly), “You have the superpowers of scary?”
Him: (looking relieved that I understand him, even though I don’t), “Yes!”
Me: “And what does that mean?”
Him: (sighing), “Well, I am scared of the dark. I am scared of falling. I am scared when people laugh at me. I am scared of sitting on the potty…the superpowers of scary.”
Me: “Ohh…I understand. Those are pretty scary things.”
I finished helping him back into clean underwear, and he let me help him wash his hands—mostly for the sake of habit, even though his hands were pristine, not having handled anything remotely poopy. He tossed a “thanks” over his shoulder and ran out of the bathroom to continue playing.
I stayed behind, processing and absorbing the information that he had so eloquently imparted to me—the superpowers of scary. Drop the mic and my jaw.
I’m not sure if anything has ever been so clearly or thoughtfully communicated. Or maybe it has, but no one has taken the time to listen when such insight and introspection was conveyed by a child, especially one who loves and understands superheroes and their superpowers. A child who understands how these powers contain unimaginable force and have a potency beyond normal human abilities.
Superpowers can give you super strength, or the ability to fly; they can make you walk up walls, and even change shape. But superpowers can also be not so great. The way Superman buckles when he’s near Kryptonite. Or the way Darth Vader uses the Jedi mind force to control others.
And my grandson, in that moment, was able to explain that he had the superpower of fear. This fear was so great that it wouldn’t allow him to sit on the potty, even though he wanted to. It makes him upset when it’s too dark. It makes him cry from embarrassment rather than pain when he falls down. It makes him anxious when his mom leaves him at school. It makes him clap his hands over his ears when he hears thunder or fireworks.
And in that moment, nothing was more clear to me: Fear is a terribly powerful thing.
I realize that I, too, have the superpowers of scary. Just to be clear, I’m not scared of the toilet, but I do have other fears that frustrate and limit me. Like talking on the phone (not happening) or networking (I’m sorry, I’m sure you’re all very lovely, but I have the superpowers of scary, and I just can’t do it). There are lots of things I either can’t get past, or am able to get past but will always hate doing because the fear is so powerful—it’s a superpower.
And, most importantly, nobody can convince me that there’s nothing to be scared of. Let me tell you, there is plenty to be scared of, so don’t tell me there’s not! My fears may seem irrational or ridiculous, but they are huge to me, so respect that. And, there are plenty of things that other people fear that I don’t, like heights or flying or spiders or commitment, but I understand how incapacitating those things can be for them.
The same goes for children. There is a lot for them to be afraid of, and sometimes their fears may be inconvenient for us (Okay, I will check under your bed and in your closet for monsters just one more time, but then…fine, you can sleep in my bed again) or even embarrassing (Please God, don’t let anyone find out my four-year-old still has to poop in a diaper), but instead of downplaying their fears or belittling them because they make no sense to us, we should appreciate just how real these fears are at this moment in their development, at this level of their concrete or early abstract thinking.
And can we, for just a minute, put ourselves in their shoes?
Anyone out there who always takes the stairs because they’re too claustrophobic to get on an elevator? Or hate flying and need a couple of mini vodkas and a Xanax to get on a plane? Sweat buckets before a job interview or meeting? It’s the same thing.
Every single one of us has the superpowers of scary. They just present differently in each of us.
So what do we need in those powerfully scary moments?
We need someone to tell us that they get it. To tell us that they’re here for us. To tell us about their own fears so we know they understand. To tell us that even though it doesn’t feel like it, everything really is going to be okay. We need someone to validate our fears.
The same goes for our children. With enough compassion and support from adults, maybe they will only have their superpowers of scary for a short amount of time.
And maybe, with enough compassion and support from each other, we adults might just have an easier time with ours, too.
Author: Amy Bradley
Image: Annie Spratt/Unsplash
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Travis May
Social Editor: Catherine Monkman