If you live in the San Francisco bay area, I hope you have been to the Exploratorium, and if you ever visit, I highly recommend you go. In addition to an amazing, totally hands-on science museum, the Exploratorium also houses one of the coolest exhibits ever: the Tactile Dome.
The Tactile Dome is an almost completely dark maze that you mostly crawl through on hands and knees. Robbed of sight, you have no choice but to explore the terrain with your sense of touch. And what a terrain! I won’t give it all away, but along the walls, you will discover a dizzying array of incongruous objects: a Barbie doll, a cheese grater, an egg beater, toy trains…the list goes on and on. It is truly something you have to experience to appreciate.
As with many such experiences, entering into the Tactile Dome comes with a certain amount of anxiety. To keep the maze dark, the entrance is hung with a sort of ballooning leather fabric you have to push through before you find yourself forced to kneel down and start crawling in the dark. I know the first time I went through it, I felt a rising panic of claustrophobia that I had to consciously breathe through before sheer wonder and appreciation took over as my main emotion.
So, many years ago, when my siblings and a parcel of nieces and nephews visited for a family reunion, I made us all a reservation for the Tactile Dome. As we sat through the short orientation, the young ones’ excitement was palpable. So was excitement’s near cousin, anxiety. Their parents went in with the kiddos in tow. Within seconds, the two leading cousins turned tail and backed all the rest of the cousins out into the waiting room. This time, anxiety outweighing excitement.
My big sister and co-Aunt reassured them that they were safe and that no one would force them to go into the maze if they didn’t want to.
“You can sit here with me and keep me company,” said my extremely empathetic and supportive big sister.
I don’t know if it was because I had planned the activity and, darn it, I wanted them to enjoy it, or because as a teacher I knew how important it was to help kids overcome fear and anxiety, but I wandered over after a minute and took over the narrative from my well-meaning sister.
“Nobody is going to make you go, but it’s actually really, really fun. The only scary part is the very beginning when the cloth is around you, but that only lasts a few seconds. Then, you are crawling up a little ramp, and there are all these crazy cool things on the wall.” The wise makers of the Tactile Dome have a sample square with some of the objects to “look out” for. “Feel these things. Nothing is going to be sharp or hurt you, see? It’s just fun.”
Skeptically, the nephews and nieces felt the cheese grater and doll nailed to the sample square.
“Besides, we are all brave explorers. We don’t need to let some cloth get in our way.” I started chanting, “We’re brave explorers” as I headed to the entrance. “I’ll be right behind you, my brave explorers!” One by one, they started into the entrance, this time giggling with the excitement that was finally beating out their fear. “Brave explorers,” I kept chanting, making sure they could hear my voice as they went through the fabric to the other side.
We went through the whole maze, shouting back and forth to each other where the most exciting discoveries were.
“Up on the left it feels like a sponge!”
“Oh my gosh! I think I just found a doll’s arm!”
“I found the egg beater!”
You know the rest of the story. By the time we got through to the end of the maze, they were bubbling with excitement, reporting every little detail to their parents and begging to go through again. (We all made it through one more time but ran out of time before a third go round.)
On the way out, my big sister said in awe, “I can’t believe you did that! Boy, was I off base.”
But, really, she hadn’t been. Her reassurance and non-shaming acceptance of their fear gave them the space to let go of it. It just happened that in this situation, when all was, in fact, perfectly safe, we needed to help our young nieces and nephews conquer their fear and anxiety.
Neurobiological research shows that each time a person faces down a fear, it is easier to face down the next fear. In other words, facing our fear makes us braver. And when the scary situation turns out to be not only ok, but really fun, my hunch is that the affect is doubled.
I’ve spoken before about the importance of developing (or maintaining) “grittiness,” determination and resilience in children. When I think about my family and the Tactile Dome, I am reminded how often we adults come across opportunities to help our children learn to persevere and overcome. Scared to touch that snake? Worried about walking by a bush with bees? Any given situation may seem trivial, but overtime, we either help them become “gritty” or we miss yet another opportunity.
Of course, we want to make our children feel safe; I’m not advocating the “throw the child into the pool to teach them how to swim” philosophy of parenting. I can’t think of a better way to reinforce fear or create a phobia in a child than literally to flood them with anxiety.
But after the soothing and the validation, it is important to move on to the pumping up and encouraging. The clue is right their in our language. To encourage literally means to fill with courage. And that is a great gift to give to any kid.
copyright Diana Kennedy 2014