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Trying (and failing) to model bravery for my child

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When I told my friends that our family would be spending spring break in Turkey and Pakistan, they invariably asked, “Are you nervous about that?”

“Oh, yes,” I would answer. “Very nervous.” I wasn’t nervous about the countries themselves, despite recent terror activity and travel warnings posted by the U.S. government. I’m just afraid of flying.

My husband was born in Pakistan, and a large portion of his family still lives there, so this is a relatively frequent destination for us. But I hate flying so much that last year, I happily stayed home and lived out a week of “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” (side note: life not changed) while my husband and daughter visited Istanbul, Lahore, and Karachi.

But this year, I decided that I didn’t want to be The Mom Who Always Stays Home. I missed my family while they were gone. Besides, I’m keenly aware that parents serve as the primary role models for their children. The 2013 State of our Nation’s Youth survey revealed that 80 percent of high school students feel that the most valuable relationship in their life involves a family member, usually their mother. Studies have shown the effect of intergenerational relationships in patterns of all sorts of behavior, from scholastic success and wealth accrual to addiction and obesity. It seems essential to model the kind of behavior you want to encourage in your children. Moreover, a recent piece in the New York Times pointed out the dangers of encouraging fear responses in young girls.

I did not want to model fear. I wanted to model bravery for my daughter. So I embraced international travel and family time, and got on the plane.

I know that flying is the safest way to travel. And I’m not generally a scaredy-cat. Spiders? No problem. Same with snakes, clowns, the dentist, the doctor, dogs and public speaking. But I don’t do big roller-coasters, and I don’t like planes.

Still, I thought I could handle it. My husband had planned the trip with the eye of a man who has zero airplane fear — we would fly to Istanbul for three days, to Lahore for four, to Karachi for slightly more than a day, back to Istanbul for two more, then back to Boston. Five flights in less than two weeks.

When we boarded the plane in Boston, Zara settled between my husband and me. But the minute we took off, I gasped and reached for Ali.

“It’s okay,” he said.

“Zara, change seats with Daddy,” I told her once the seat belt sign had been turned off.

“Why?” she asked. I told her that I needed Daddy. (I needed to squeeze his hand and whisper, “Help me. Help me,” just like I had on our honeymoon.)

“Mama is scared,” Ali explained.

But Zara refused to change seats. She grabbed my arm and announced, “I’ll take care of you.”

I was both touched and horrified. My 8-year-old was comforting me. I’m supposed to be modeling being brave! I thought. I am supposed to show her what a strong woman looks like, not the other way around!

“Zara and I aren’t afraid of planes, are we?” Ali said. “We like to fly! And when we fly, we always have — lollipops!” He pulled them out, gave one to Zara and offered another to me, which I was too nervous to take. They “toasted” each other with candy while I struggled to maintain composure. We hit some turbulence, and my anxiety got so bad that I had to dry-heave into a barf bag.

Some brave role model. I wondered if my fear was affecting Zara, if I was sending her the message that women aren’t brave. But she didn’t seem bothered as she sat beside me, calmly watching the Disney Channel.

We went through this on every flight. Overwhelmed by terror, I would reach for Ali, and Zara would grab my arm to comfort me.

Several nights into our trip, Zara asked me why I am afraid of airplanes. She had waited for a quiet moment, when we were alone together in the dark, as I tucked her into bed.

“I don’t really know,” I told her. “It’s like how you’re afraid of daddy long legs.”

She was quiet for a long time. “Mama, you just made me feel very afraid right now,” she said. My daughter, the fearless traveler, the girl who has stood up to bullies three grades older than herself, is terrified of daddy long legs.

I nodded. “I know. You’re afraid of them, but I’m not. I like when they crawl on me. And I’m afraid of airplanes, and you’re not. Almost everyone has something.”

“Everyone has something,” she agreed.

Here is the thing about motherhood — we’re all doing it wrong. And we’re all doing it right. I thought I had to model bravery, but I forgot two things. The first is that Zara has lots of people in her life besides me to look to as role models, including her father. The second is that there is also value in modeling being afraid of something, and doing it anyway. I showed her what it was like to handle something hard, and that lesson is valuable, too.

And one totally unexpected thing happened — Zara got to be the brave one. My fear allowed her to be a leader; my failure made room for her success.

I have to get an airplane by myself in a few weeks, and when I do, I’ll think about my role model. I’ll bring a lollipop, and I’ll toast my brave daughter.

Lisa Papademetriou is the author of A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic and the Confectionately Yours series, as well as many other books for young readers. You can connect with her via her blog, or twitter, @axyfabulous

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