Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?

A STRANGE looking spider appeared in our bath the other day – red, with yellow hair, pink lips and a shiny green stiletto on each of its eight feet.

Thursday, 8th April 2010, 10:56 am

I made up the bit about the stilettos, but the rest is true – at least according to our two-year-old.

Zoe is terrified of spiders. But as with many of the things that frighten her, she's fascinated by them too. She does a mean impression of a spider's angular-legged scuttle, and tells us about conversations she's had with them.

I imagine a psychologist would say this was her way of assimilating the alien and the unknown into her world-view. If she can imagine having a conversation with a colourful, squeaky-voiced arachnid, the reality might seem less frightening.

Some of her fears are pretty understandable; others I find intriguingly idiosyncratic. For a while I was baffled as to why she'd cling to my leg, whimpering, as we passed the book case on the landing. Then one day she said, "Horrible man ..." pointing at Hitler: A Study In Tyranny.

The Fuhrer does indeed look pretty sinister on the cover of Alan Bullock's biography. And an instinctive wariness of the Nazi leader probably shows sound political and moral judgement.

So much for Hitler, but why is Zoe so scared of my brown corduroy trousers?

As I write, I'm wearing a pair of jeans that have never been comfortable, simply because I couldn't face a bank holiday Monday blighted by tantrums over my comfortable cords. (Honestly, the sacrifices one makes...)

She's also scared of a friend of mine called John, apparently because he shares a name with a scary-looking doll from her doll's house – a name she gave it. And of course the doll doesn't really look scary. The mind boggles.

A while ago she had a similar fear of muddy footwear, freaking out at the sight of my mum's hiking boots in the corner of her kitchen. Days later, in the heavy snow, I dug out my own hiking boots, and there was hell to pay.

But then, my own childhood fears, some of them clothes-related, were equally bizarre. For a while I was scared of coat hangers. I can date this to a time I was suffering with a fever and was allowed to sleep on a camp bed in my parents' room. In the throes of hallucinations and nightmares, my dad's suit hanging on the wardrobe door looked so creepy that it invaded my consciousness to the point that I had nightmares about coathangers for years afterwards.

Suits, sheets and shirts would drift disembodied down the street towards our house like ghosts with wire hooks for their heads. Ridiculous, but I feel a twinge of unease remembering these dreams even now.

In a way I enjoy Zoe's irrational fears because there's such pleasure to be had in reassuring her. As you cuddle a panicking toddler, you might also be soothing your own fearful child within. Certainly it's easier than the sort of conversations we'll be having in a few years' time.

It's simple enough reassuring someone that spiders and trousers are harmless.

But how do you explain death to a child? Or sex? Or, come to think of it, the crucifixion? We'll see.