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On one recent night, my younger son had trouble falling asleep. “Daddy,” he said, “I know it’s ridiculous, but I have this thought that I can’t get out of my head. I’m worried about teleportation. The dark makes me think I’ll be teleported out of my room, to some place I don’t know.”
What’s the proper response when your child expresses such a fear? Though I was tempted to say “Teleported? But that would be awesome,” I stopped myself. He wasn’t indulging in the kind of comic book fantasies I might have (popping into a Columbian drug lord’s mansion, grabbing a few stacks from his money pile and popping out again). He was talking of being torn away from his home by forces he couldn’t understand or control, essentially of being kidnapped. A flippant answer was no good here.
I also held back because of another bedtime, several years earlier, in which teleportation had cast a scary shadow. This incident involved my older son, about 8 at the time, and my decision to read him the climactic chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
If you haven’t read the Harry Potter books, you won’t know what I’m talking about, but the chapter in question is one of the pivot points in the series, in which the tone goes from reasonably light-hearted to more genuinely frightening. After winning a multi-school magic competition, Harry Potter and the handsome Cedric Diggory (essentially the BMOC of Hogwarts.) are unexpectedly teleported to a dark, mysterious graveyard. There they are confronted by a sinister figure in a robe whose first act is to briskly kill Diggory with a magic curse.
He was talking of being torn away from his home by forces he couldn’t understand or control, essentially of being kidnapped.
I’d read the books, and I knew what was coming. I recall hesitating for a moment. A voice in my head said “Don’t read that to him! He’ll have nightmares,” but it was overcome by a macho dad impulse, a sort of “throw-’em-in-the-deep-end-of-the-pool” tough love. So I read:
“A blast of green light blazed through Harry’s eyelids, and he heard something heavy fall to the ground beside him…terrified of what he was about to see, he opened his stinging eyes. Cedric was lying spread-eagled on the ground beside him. He was dead.”
There were a few beats of silence from my son’s side of the room, then he asked, in a small voice, “Is he actually dead?”
“Yup,” I said “He’s actually dead.”
I continued to read ahead for a bit until I realized my son was softly crying.
“Hey, honey, you ok?” I asked.
“I really didn’t expect that,” he sniffled, which in retrospect was a pretty sophisticated realization for a traumatized 8-year old.
“Oh, don’t be scared,” I said, “It’s just a story.” This utterly useless observation did no good, and even after I put the book down and tried singing to him, it was obvious he wasn’t going to fall asleep. He asked for his mother, who I called in. Her face showed the struggle between concern for her little boy and annoyance at her husband. We were still in the stage of parenting when each jealously guarded their night off. I retreated to the living room and she joined me in about an hour, after he had finally fallen asleep.
There are times in a marriage when an argument is so obviously in the cards that both parties are exhausted before it even begins.
There are times in a marriage when an argument is so obviously in the cards that both parties are exhausted before it even begins. My wife sighed as she sat down on the couch and asked what had happened. My explanation produced a Liz Lemon-worthy eye roll.
“Why the hell would you read him that at bedtime?” she asked, in a way that indicated no answer would really do.
“I don’t know. It was where we were in the story. What was I supposed to do?”
“Not read it to him! Of course he’s going to be scared. This is the kid who doesn’t want watermelon in the house because he once mistook a seed for a bug.”
I made the universal male sign for “what do you want outta me?”— hands open, shoulders and eyebrows raised, lips pursed as if I was about to take a selfie.
“Look,” she said, “If he wakes up in the middle of the night, you’re dealing with it, not me.”
She said this with an angry smile, the type of smile that simultaneously expresses disgust, rage and resignation. There are few facial expressions in my wife’s arsenal that irritate me more, especially when I realize its employment is fully justified, as it was now. I answered by aggressively flipping the channels and scowling at our ancient cat, who was regarding us both with an air of contempt.
So I didn’t tell him how I worried about teleportation too. Not literal teleportation, but the figurative kind.
As it happened, our son slept through the night and seemed none the worse in the morning. But my bad choice that night came back to me as his younger brother fretted about being teleported away. So I didn’t tell him how I worried about teleportation too. Not literal teleportation, but the figurative kind. Being teleported into the land of sickness by an unexpected diagnosis. Being teleported into the land of poverty by losing a job. Being teleported into the land of grief by the death of someone I loved. I held back. He didn’t need to be thrown in the deep end tonight.
Instead, I just sat on the bed next to him, stroked his hair and said “It’s okay, honey. No one is going to take you away.” We sat together in the companionable darkness, while his breathing got slower and deeper. He sighed in that matter-of-fact way that kids sometimes do when they’re drifting off, then rolled onto his side and fell asleep.
Jon Moskowitz is a senior copywriter and content creator.
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