04/21/2013 11:10 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Do We Tell Our Children About Monsters?

Lyz Lenz

At the end of every day, my husband Dave and I ask Ellis, our 2-year-old, what made her happy and what made her sad. The answers for happy range from cookies to puddles to Elmo. And the sad things are the people or animals who threaten her snacks, a little boy named Aidan, birds and dogs. But this week, the answers have all been the same.

What makes Ellis happy? Princesses.

What makes Ellis sad? Dinosaurs.

My 2-year-old's fear of dinosaurs is funny, in that condescending way that adults feel about childhood things. But it is also not funny, when you remember what it is like to be afraid as a child. I used to lie awake at night imagining the swirls of black that I saw in the darkness were demons battling angels in a spiritual warfare our pastor said was happening all around us. My friend KT tells me children raised less evangelical were afraid of the swamp that swallowed the Artax in The Neverending Story.

I want to reassure my daughter. So, we read about dinosaurs and discuss them, how they have babies like us, how dinosaurs probably like broccoli and are related to birds. I try to tell her that dinosaurs are beautiful mystery creatures discovered by scientist that still baffle and fill us with wonder. She nods and asks for a cookie, which I give to her, because I feel bad that I tried to make her say, "Paleonlogist." And I'm pretty sure I've given her a meteor complex.

Last Saturday, I came home and Ellis was sitting at the kitchen table with Dave. They were eating lunch, the two of them a matching pair of peanut butter sandwiches and unbrushed blonde hair. "Hi, mom!" Ellis said waving a jelly-sticky hand. "Wook, it's Dinosaur Steeb."

She was pointing to a picture propped up on the table. It was a drawing of a dinosaur, with a pool and a slide, and above that Orion and the planet Saturn. In front of the picture was a sandwich made of play food. This is Dinosaur Steve. Like Ellis, he likes to swim and loves to find Orion in the sky with his daddy. Steve is on our refrigerator. And every day, Ellis comes to take a peek at him. Sometimes, she brings him gifts of plastic food. Other times, she just takes him off the refrigerator and shows me that Steve has a slide and a pool, "Just wike Ellis!"


And then, yesterday, Ellis announced, "I not scared of Dinosaur Steeb!" I guess dinosaurs just needed a pitchman.

I don't know why it's dinosaurs that scare my daughter. But it doesn't matter. Every child finds something that represents the blackness they see swirling above them at night. She's so little, so protected from everything around her that when she hears the word "target" in an NPR story, she laughs and says, "Dey say 'Target.' I get cookie at Target." Even now, she knows that something is out to get her.

I sometimes volunteer at a local shelter for women, where someone told me once that no matter how well your parents raised you, how perfect your life is, in the end, you are broken by this imperfect and dangerous world. That's the truth that sometimes wakes me up at night, and I fall asleep again watching what I used to think were demons, but now I know is just an optical illusion. I'm afraid of something else now. Something I can't talk myself out of.

What you are afraid of is never the thing that gets you, I want to explain to my daughter. So, don't live in fear. And I will tell her this one day. But now we have Steve, the ambassador of dinosaurs. Steve who loves Saturn and slides into his pool. Who reminds me that even with monsters, it's never black and white.