My stepdaughter was 4 years old, and we were on a weekend outing to the local mall. At the nexus of this particular mall’s spokes, on the first floor, was a 25-foot-diameter carpeted area, surrounded by a single carpeted step, and then 1-to-5-foot walls (the shorter ones solid, the taller ones clear plastic) surrounding that. Where the tall plastic walls were was also the back of an interior glass elevator.

When there wasn’t any special event happening, this was the designated “kid pit,” where shoeless children from ages 0 through 10 or so would run around, crash into each other, get back up, and repeat the process. Fun for all. Kids get to play and bleed off their energy, stored up from shopping at grown-up stores; parents get to make catty comments about other people’s children and how stupid they look.

On this day, somebody had brought balloons to the pit, and kids were playing with them. No big deal. Some balloons popped, and some flew over the walls of the pit. Some even went over the high plastic walls and landed under the elevator car, so they ended up trapped. (They didn’t pop, however, because there was a few feet of clearance there, even when the elevator was on the first floor.)

About fifteen minutes after putting my stepdaughter to bed that night, my wife and I thought we heard sniffling and sobbing. We went back into her room to find tears streaming down her face; she was so upset that she could barely even explain what was bothering her. We finally figured out why she was upset. It seems that she had accidentally hit one of the balloons out of the pit and under the elevator. A bigger kid told her that she was going to have to go out and get the balloon. My stepdaughter was terrified that she would have to do this, and that the elevator was going to crush her while she was getting the balloon back.

This was hours after the fact, and she was truly panicked, even though she mentioned nothing about it at the time. Just the idea, the memory of being back in that situation, scared her to death. We hugged her and calmed her down. We told her that the balloons weren’t important, and that no kid was going to have to get the one she knocked out. We explained that she had nothing to worry about; bigger kids try to pick on littler kids, and this big kid was just trying to be bossy, and so on. She eventually settled down and went to sleep.

Internally, I was distraught by the notion that my 4-year-old stepdaughter had experienced a fear so intense that she was lying awake at night, sobbing, feeling all alone. Seeing fear in the eyes of a small child that you love stirs up all kinds of feelings: compassion for the child; a determination to alleviate the fear; anger at whatever (or whoever) caused it in the first place.

My instinct is usually to pick up and hug my stepdaughter, so that she feels safe and loved. And after that, it is to eliminate the cause of her fear so that she’ll never suffer from it again.

In adulthood, we have a refined sense of what is reasonable and what is not. We draw on logic, experience, the context of the situation, and so forth. Children do not yet have the benefit of this ability. They have to rely on what their parents teach them, what they learn from educators and other grownups, and even from older kids. They have to trust other people to show them the way, because they haven’t got the capacity to find the way on their own.

There’s an implicit promise, then, in what we tell children; since they’re essentially at our mercy to tell them what behavior is acceptable, what behavior is absolutely necessary, what is forbidden, and so on, we promise not to lead them astray—for instance, by telling them that they must do something that, really, they shouldn’t do at all.

“Promises mean everything, when you’re little, and the world’s so big …”

Whenever I hear “Wonderful” by Everclear—or even think of the song—and it comes to that line, I think of my stepdaughter. I think of being 4 years old, in a big world; I think of being 4 years old and being told to do something that I think might crush me; I think of being 4 years old and being frightened and alone; and I cry. I cry and I look forward to the next time I’ll see her, when I can hug her again, and be there to protect her. The world is big, and you are little, but you are not alone.

I promise.