How do you raise a child to be unafraid of the dark? Begin early, and teach your child to “love the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”
How do you teach your child to love the stars so fondly? Astronomy propaganda. Push it early. Push it hard. Start before they can speak. Young babies do not know how to be afraid of the dark, so catch them early.
Decorate their rooms with stars and planets. If it surrounds them, it will seem natural and comforting. You can find some good solar system art at educational supply stores where they sell bulletin board art, or a good online search will yield amazing things. I recommend some Sarah Clemens’ paintings too.
Read books to them, and make sure those books have stars and moons in them. This is easy to do. Many going-to-bed bedtime picture books have the moon in them somewhere, and several that have the moon on nearly every page. Get some of Frank Asch’s Moonbear books. Or the Berenstain Bears in the Night. Child development experts advised me to read books with my baby by pointing to objects in the pictures and labeling them for the baby, and if they’re at a stage where they are beginning to pick up words, maybe they will mimic the word back to you. Our first success came with Bears in the Night. There is a crescent moon on nearly every page. It didn’t take long before our toddler said, “Moom!” and was soon able to apply “Moom” to other drawings and photographs of the moon, the moon on TV, and the moon outside. Goodnight Moon is classic, but beware that you can’t say goodnight to the moon every night.
Play with shapes toys and books with them, and get ones that have 5-pointed stars and crescent moons. Many shapes sorting toys have star shapes. Ones with crescent moons are harder to find. There are other star- and moon-shaped toys you can find too. I got some star-shaped bathtub clings that my toddler carried around for quite awhile. There are also Hugg-a-Moon/Planet pillows, star pillows (the Mario star), or inflatable solar systems.
Don’t let them watch regular television. Show episodes of The Universe instead. It is visually stunning. You can watch some full episodes online. There are also plenty of moon and planet videos on YouTube.
Take them outside to see the moon and make a big deal out of it. Given young kids bedtimes, this is probably best done from first quarter to full moon phases. The first quarter rises at noon and is at its mid-point in the sky at sunset; the waxing gibbous moon appears high in the east at sunset; and the full moon rises at sunset and sets at sunrise.
Go for Full Moon Walks as a family.
Take them to the planetarium where “turning on the dark” means getting to see the stars, moon, and planets.
WARNING: By this method, you may be creating an astronomonster. They may come to want all space stuff all the time, may imagine planets everywhere, may go to sleep muttering planet names, and may try to make rocks or potatoes orbit each other. They’re not dangerous, and they can be amazingly cute, although they may seem weird at times.
Okay, that actually was sort of serious. A little bit, as in, I did some of those things. I decorated my kids’ room with a space theme. Bears in the Night helped make “moon” one of my kid’s first words. He happened to love the star shape, so we got him more star-shaped toys. We don’t have TV, but we do own The Universe series on DVD, so he was exposed to that and came to love it. I work at the planetarium, so he came with me occasionally, and thinks it’s pretty cool. I checked out astronomy kids’ books in part because he enjoyed them, but also for planetarium purposes. He liked the moon, so we took him outside to see the moon when it was visible, and we would point out the planets in the sky, so he can now pick them out himself. Since we seem to have created an astronomonster, and little brother is following the example,my husband teases that I push/ed astronomy propaganda. I think it of it as more like teaching “Suzuki Astronomy.”
Before we go any further, here’s a disclaimer: I am writing from the perspective of having a 2.5 year old who loves the dark because he loves astronomy. I do not have experience with helping a child who is afraid of the dark to overcome his fears, although I have done some research on the topic just in case. As a planetarian, I have been trained to treat our preschoolers gently, just in case they have some fears of the dark. (When we get preschool groups visiting the planetarium, we begin in dim light, introduce them to the room, talk about how the equipment works and how we need to make the room dark in order to see the stars, and we reassure them that we don’t have to be afraid here in the dark while we are all here together. And if someone really needs help in the dark, they can hold Ursa Major or Ursa Minor, our resident teddy bears.)
In case you have an older child who already has some night fears, here is some potentially helpful linkage about children’s fear of the dark and how to overcome it. From the quick survey I gave them they seemed pretty solid. I give some highlights after each link:
- “Children Who Are Afraid of the Dark,” a Sleeping Angels blog post by pediatric sleep specialist Dennis Rosen, M.D., on Psychology Today – highlights include that “light directly affects the brain’s inner clock, and delays sleep onset. The brain interprets the presence of light as a sign that it is still daytime, and therefore much too early for sleep. This results in longer time to sleep onset.” Therefore, use a low-powered nightlight if you must. Otherwise, try to address their fears (was a neighbor’s house burglarized recently? was it a scary movie or story?).
- “Afraid of the Dark: 5 Ways to Help Conquer Their Night Fears” – highlights include that “Young babies don’t know that things exist even if they can’t see them. In other words, they are not sophisticated enough to be afraid of the dark. Your [2-year-old], on the other hand, has had enough experience to know that the dark covers up things that are still there, even though she can’t see them.Your 2-year-old also doesn’t know enough about object constancy to understand that things don’t just develop in the dark that weren’t already there. She, therefore, can easily imagine that monsters or big dogs could be there in the dark, even though they weren’t there when she turned off the light. Similarly, she may be seeing shadows and interpreting them as other, scary things. Her stuffed animal might take on a different look in the dark; a pile of toys might look frightening. This is all a normal part of your child’s development.” To help, Listen, Acknowledge His/Her Fears, Provide Support, Allow Him/Her to “Obsess,” Help Him/Her Develop Skills [for learning about their fears and coping].
- “Fear of the Dark,” a WebMD article – highlights include: TV and books can help trigger their developing imaginations; monitor what they watch, to make sure it is age appropriate. Communicate with them. Don’t tell them their fears are silly, because then they will be ashamed in addition to being afraid. There seems to be a lot of good advice on overcoming fear of dark here, including where such fears come from, what not to do as a parent, and so on.
And maybe, just maybe, helping them to love astronomy, will alleviate nighttime fears as well.
It is possible that my children may come to be afraid of the dark at some point, depending on their imaginations, the books or TV they consume, or unpleasant occurrences in the news. But as of now, my 2.5 year old asks for the dark. The first time I heard him ask for the dark, it took me awhile to figure out what he was asking for. “Dog?” “Duck?” Oh, “Dark!” We were at the planetarium for the astronomy club’s Christmas party. We had just had a demo of the new full-dome projector and UniView, and he had been enjoying shouting out the names of the planets and objects that we were viewing on the dome. After it was over and the lights were on, he started saying, “Dark! Dark!” He wanted the dark back on, because that is where the planets are. Since then, he will request the dark at home, too, usually so he can play with his Moon-in-my-Room light.
We did not set out to come to this point, and, at least at first, I did nothing extraordinary to unleash the astronomonster. A love for stars (the 5-pointed shape) and the moon came first, through Bears in the Night, the moon episodes of The Universe, and looking at the moon outside. Next came planets. At first, he couldn’t distinguish the planets from one another, and called them all “moon.” We called Earth “Earth” when it popped up on TV or in books, and eventually he called it “ihth!” Thus, his ability to distinguish the different planets was awakened. His pronunciation took some time to catch up, however, so early attempts at “Jupiter” sounded like some strange mash-up of “Jupiter” and “peanut butter,” and “Mercury” was “Gurcury,” and “Saturn” was “Ha-urn,” but now it’s all correct. We don’t have television, just DVD’s, so The Universe became his favorite program. It’s pretty visually stunning and informative, so why not? He has since moved on from the planets to also love their moons, the stars, galaxies, and time travel. His nursery was not space-themed to begin with, but when I was going to move him to a new room to make way for baby, I decorated his new room with a space theme because he already was in love with the universe. This is what my husband refers to as “indoctrination.” I think I’m just giving the kid what he wants, and it happens to be educational and helps him be unafraid of the dark.
Good luck, moms, dads, and caregivers. And if you have tips of your own or astronomonster tales to share, please submit them in comments or e-mail to astronomommy at gmail dot com. Thanks!