Nothing to Fear, Except…

Three-year-olds and almost!three-year-olds are funny creatures in the way they develop completely irrational fears.


My parents have long taken great delight in this story. When I was three, I saw what appeared to be a rather large spider in the ceiling corner of the room. A budding arachnophobe, I called my father and said, “Daddy, kill it.”

As it turns out, the spider was not a spider. It was some dust.

(shown: also not a spider, but definitely not dust)

I probably had other irrational fears at that time, though none of them get the milage of the dust spider story.

Sam, too, is developing irrational fears. No sooner do we quash one than another springs up in its place, like so many weeds. There’s probably a long child psychology reason for this, but I’m groggy and don’t feel like doing my research today. And anyway, the long child psychology reason behind three-year-olds and almost!three-year-olds isn’t the point of this story.

About six or so months ago, we saw irrational fears for the first time… though in that period, they seemed completely logical. Sam was going through a pretty stressful time. He’d recently switched classes at his daycare (from the infant and toddler room to the junior preschool), moved from the bedroom he’d slept in since we bought the house to the smaller room next door, and changed from a crib to a big boy bed. By day, he embraced these changes as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

By night, however, things got a little hairy.

You see, we’re bad parents in the sense that we help Sam calm down for the night by watching videos with him on our phones. He has various preferences, but the longest running favorite, the one he goes back to even after months of being away, is Disney’s Fantasia.

(for the most part, harmless, right?)

We used to watch it in segments, one segment before bed every night. Each segment is about 10-15 minutes long, and there are eight segments in total. We’d get through Fantasia in a week or so and then start it all over again. The final segment is called “Night on Bald Mountain” and literally features Satan–here called Chernabog–having a party with his minions while looming over a sleepy European village. I never watched it as a kid, but as an adult, I love it, if only because it’s a really neat bit of animation (especially for 1940!).

Sam loves it, too. When he was much littler, and that would be his Fantasia segment for the evening, he’d chirp, “Good night Satan!” as we turned the program off. More recently, he wriggles in his seat, dancing along with the demons and harpies and furies and what-have-you as they rock out to Modest Mussorgsky’s classic piece. He always begs us to watch it, no matter the time of day.

(while I’m here, why is Chernabog so ripped?)

We weren’t really in a Fantasia stage six months ago; we were getting ready to go on a family trip to Disney World. As part of our preparation to do so, I was showing Sam videos of Disney’s Fantasmic! fireworks show before bed. The show features Mickey Mouse battling the Forces of Darkness in his imagination and has some Disney message about the power of imagination to triumph over fear or something like that. One of the featured Forces of Darkness was the Chernabog (really, he shows up for a one or two second cameo), and he was the one Sam was most excited to see, if only because he didn’t recognize any of the other villains.


Combining a bunch of changes with videos of literal Satan is absolutely a recipe for disaster when you have a toddler. The first week those changes took effect, Sam woke up every night, terrified that the Chernabog was going to get him (he’s yet to be “gotten” in any way that involves anything but tickling, but I suppose I’d be terrified of literal Satan tickling me, too). After the second sleepless night, Kyle and I implemented a bunch of changes. Anything featuring Chernabog was completely banned from nighttime rituals. We watched innocuous videos–baking shows, silly songs, nothing scary. We set Sam up with his Darth Vader Bear (a gift from his Aunt Veri) and gave him several lightsabers. We used “dream cream” (lotion that I rubbed on his hands and told him would keep bad dreams away). Even Kat got in on the action and made Sam an awesome painting of Darth Vader–his hero–fighting the Chernabog.

(are you wondering if Kat is the best? Because she is)

And eventually, the nightmares went away. Sam is not in the least afraid of the Chernabog, and Kyle and I thought we’d learned our lesson about exposing our kid to things that would scare him.

Key word being thought. I’ve learned a curious truth about toddlers in the last several days: they will develop irrational fears of absolutely anything for no reason whatsoever.

The newest fear began about a week or so ago. Sam sat on the couch picking at his feet and growing increasingly concerned at the toe jam he was finding in doing so. “What is that?” he asked, alarmed.

“Oh, that’s just toe jam,” I answered, brushing it into the abyss of the floor that was vacuumed shortly thereafter. I thought that would be the last of it.

It was not.


Sam now refuses to go on the floor barefoot. If he’s not wearing socks and shoes or footie pajamas, he wraps around me and Kyle like an octopus and insists on being carried everywhere. If we try to set him down on the floor, barefoot, he shrieks like we’re setting him down into boiling oil.

The first time he did this was a weekday, and I asked Sam as he clung to me, “What are you so afraid of?”

“Toe jam!” he answered, much the way I’m sure I asked my father to kill the dust spider. “There’s toe jam on the floor!”

His fear extends to us as well. On Saturday, Kyle sat with his feet up, watching TV. Out of nowhere, Sam trotted over and began inspecting between Kyle’s toes for toe jam, all the while wearing the most serious of expressions (Kyle, meanwhile, was doing his best not to shriek with laughter for how much it tickled; I didn’t even try). Later, he more than willingly stayed in the bathtub, scrubbing his feet until he was certain they were free of toe jam.

I’ve tried to explain that it’s just dust from his socks getting sweaty, but Sam remains unconvinced. As far as he’s concerned, toe jam is worse than the Chernabog and dust spiders combined. It’s pure evil, and nothing and no one can tell him otherwise.

I’ll figure out the psychological implications of this situation later. In the meantime, I’ll be happy that at least my son is willingly washing his feet at night.

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