My seven-year-old son and I were standing in line for popcorn at the movie theater the weekend before Christmas. I had left his two-year-old brother home with Daddy so big brother could enjoy some rare just-mommy time. For once, we’d arrived at early enough to get snacks.
“Is this the theater that has the video at the beginning where the train goes through outer space?” my son asked me as he tucked his hands up inside the sleeves of his kelly-green puffer coat.
“I’m not sure,” I trailed off as I scanned the lobby walls trying to find a sign telling me which type of theater we were in. I didn’t see anything. “We’ve been here before. Yes, I think it’s that kind of theater.”
“I’m scared of that ad,” he said.
“You know what?” I replied. “That video bothers me, too. It makes me feel weird in my stomach; I feel like I’m going to fall into space. I’ve never told anyone that before because I felt silly to be a grown-up that was scared of something like that. It makes me feel better that you don’t like it either.”
In the theater, we both averted our eyes when the video began. I wasn’t sure if I really did feel better to learn that we were both scared of it. Actually, I was worried. Worried he was becoming a little too much like me in not-so-great ways.
My son regularly implores me to “watch this,” and proceeds to perform a perfect pirouette in the middle of the living room. I compliment his abilities, tell him the step he has just “made up” is in fact a ballet move, and entreat him to reconsider attending a dance class. Having spent 15 years of my life in dance studios for hours a day, I’m more than happy to proudly claim his natural aptitude for dance as part of my genetic contribution. But when he began exhibiting some of my more unpleasant traits – like irrational fears and bad habits – I wasn’t so quick to claim them.
It made me wonder: could he have inherited these attributes from me?
Plenty of people are scared of water, so I didn’t think much of it when my son didn’t like the pool. At three years old, he spent the entire summer screaming if anyone dared to even dip his toes into the water. That was, of course, the summer we were renting an apartment with pool access. I’m not scared of being in water and I know how to swim, but I don’t like going underwater. My fear of being submerged grew as an extension of my claustrophobia. To be fully surrounded by water is to be fully enclosed in airlessness, like falling into space.
My son has come to enjoy playing in the pool, but still has no interest in putting his face in the water. At a pool party this summer, the other kids repeatedly jumped off the diving board while my son paddled around the shallow end in his floaty. Next year, he will likely exceed the weight limit of said floaty. We will be veering into full-blown life-jacket-in-the-pool territory.
His fear is possibly extending beyond normalcy, and I worry that I’ve contributed to that. I always try my best not to voice my own fears loudly or in an alarmist way. When asked, I calmly explain to him that I just don’t like putting my head underwater. He watches Daddy go under and come back up all the time.
For me, the concern about my influence lingers. Did he sense the panic I’d tried to hide in my overly-frequent requests for him not to run by the pool, to stay out of the deep end, and always wear his floaty? Why would he inherit or adopt my fear instead of his father’s lack thereof?
Fear is typically thought of as being a learned response, a form of conditioning. Recent studies in mice found that fear responses could be inherited from close relatives. Research in humans on the stress responses of twins and on post-traumatic stress symptoms in children of soldiers point to fear potentially having a genetic component.
My son and I also share some odd habits and attributes. We both pick at the dry skin around our fingernails when we are stressed or bored, are perfectionist to the point of absurdity, have short tempers, and thrive on meticulous organization. One of his chores is to fold any of the squares when I do the laundry – washcloths, napkins, hankies, dish towels – he folds and re-folds until it’s just so. When folding shirts, I often do the same thing. My son’s kindergarten class made New Year’s resolutions last year. His was to not get so upset when something he made didn’t turn out perfectly. I could have easily made the same resolution.
I’m pretty sure we are quite far off from knowing if quirks are truly inheritable, but whatever the root cause, all routes lead to me anyway. Whether I taught him to fear water and to require organization and perfection, or if he inherited these predispositions from my genes, I am the reason.
Sharing behaviors means that I can also share with him the different ways I’ve learned to navigate them. We make pacts to try and pick at our fingers less, or at least not pick until they’re raw. Maybe what I told my son at the movie theater is more true than I realized. Maybe it’s a relief to find someone else who shared my embarrassing fear of watching a train careen wildly around a movie-reel track through popcorn explosions in outer space. If I can learn to be less hard on myself, maybe I can also pass on that sense of self-acceptance.