Characters who fearlessly embrace adventure tend to overshadow Nervous Nellie characters in books and movies. But the truth is, we’re all a lot more like Arnold: Everyone experiences little doses of fear in everyday life, and often, it helps both kids and grownups make smarter decisions about things worth being nervous about, like an upcoming test or a rickety ladder.
“Some characters look like they don’t get anxious or fearful about things at all, but that’s not how humans function,” says Ellen Braaten, Ph.D., co-director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. “We should all feel a healthy dose of anxiety in certain situations.”
In fact, Arnold helps children understand that the goal is to manage fear, not eliminate it — something that can be especially useful for science, a subject that can sometimes seem icky or scary (think bugs, mold, or dinosaurs!).
“My 4-year-old daughter is not a natural risk-taker and would probably be just as worried as Arnold, in some of these situations — and rightly so,” says Cindy Hemming, a mom of two in Fredericton, New Brunswick. “I’m a big fan of Arnold because I think he represents kids who are not wildly adventurous, who think ahead, and who are naturally cautious. He shows that science is accessible for all types of kids, not just the ones who want to dive in and get messy.”
Book Pick: The Magic School Bus Blows Its Top: A Book about Volcanoes — When Ms. Frizzle takes the class on an explosive adventure, Arnold makes nervous quips like “Oh no! Not another field trip!” “Why does this always happen?” and “Couldn’t we just go to a bookstore?” His worries are understandable: The class flies through a storm, gets caught in an earthquake, and floats in lava as they learn fascinating facts about volcanoes.
Arnold uses the type of critical thinking you’d want your own child to use if she were invited to, say, travel to the ocean’s floors or outer space. In fact, he shows that it’s reasonable to express valid concerns about a dubious situation, even when none of his peers seem to be worried.
“I can’t help but love the common sense Arnold demonstrates in each book, even though he’s a bit of a stick-in-the-mud,” says Hemming. “I think he grounds the series in reality, which helps children realize the absurdity of the field trips. The other kids are mostly enthusiastic about anything Ms. Frizzle dreams up, but Arnold is usually the one pushing back and using common sense when he realizes what her wild plans are.”
Arnold’s pragmatic voice of caution can be a good example for kids who may not be like him — those who would excitedly climb into a time machine without asking questions. “Not many books touch on common sense, and I think The Magic School Bus is unique in that it shines a light on a sensible character like Arnold,” says Kayla O’Neill, a mom of two in Columbus, Indiana.
Book Pick: The Magic School Bus and the Missing Tooth — When Ms. Frizzle and her class shrink and explore the mouths of various creatures to find the source of a missing tooth, Arnold (reasonably) exclaims: “Let’s go before she swallows us!” Later on, he points out that a sharp tooth must belong to an animal that eats other animals — helping the class discover that the class pet lizard, Liz, is the owner of the missing pearly white.
Arnold often wishes he would have stayed home from school, but he still shows up. He (reluctantly) goes on Ms. Frizzle’s wacky field trips — and even has some pretty heroic moments throughout the series. Arnold shows kids that even though they might feel scared about certain scenarios, coping with those fears can have an excellent outcome. In his case, that’s learning a lot about science, and even having a bit of fun.
“Arnold proves that if you understand and acknowledge what your fear is, you can move through it as opposed to away from it, leading to really great benefits,” says Braaten. “He also does a lot to reframe what it is he’s afraid of.”
You can help your child do the same when he’s nervous or anxious by asking: “What are you worried about? Let’s describe it, then let’s test it out to see if we really need to worry about it.” It can also be helpful to refer to times when Arnold was nervous about something but gathered enough information about the situation to move past his fears.
Book Pick: The Magic School Bus: Inside a Hurricane — In this book, Ms. Frizzle’s students go on a field trip to learn about powerful storms. Arnold is scared and says, “Sorry, I can’t go. I have to sharpen my pencil. I have to sharpen several pencils!” But eventually, he joins his classmates in riding hot air balloons and skydiving through a hurricane — scenarios that teach him about incredible weather patterns.
Although Arnold’s classmates aren’t as nervous as he is about field trips, they are still accepting of him. “One thing I really enjoy about the series is that the kids are always inclusive and respectful of Arnold,” says Hemming. “Although he deals with quite a bit of anxiety, he is always part of the group and never ostracized for it.”
If your child doesn’t recognize herself in Arnold, she might recognize one of her classmates or friends in him, and that can teach her to be more understanding of other’s emotions. “To see a character like Arnold and be able to empathize with him is really key for understanding certain emotional experiences,” says Braaten. “It gives kids who aren’t as prone to anxiety the opportunity to see what someone else’s inner experience is like.”