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October 12, 2012

Fear of sharks does not qualify as a special-needs student

NORMAN — Q: Because he is afraid of sharks, my fourth grade son 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 us or his teachers 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 very 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.

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