We have a happy, outgoing boy who will turn 5 in a couple of months. He has always been a cautious child (his mom and I are pretty cautious and wonder if we made him like this) and seems afraid of many things. He is afraid of Santa, so Santa doesn't come to our house, and we can't have Santa decorations. He was the only one in his preschool class to not ride the pony or go on the "spooky" hayride on a Fall field trip, and he is afraid of the dark. He refused to go to a friend's glow-in-the-dark mini-golf birthday party because "it was in the dark." My wife suggested that we check out the place a week or two ahead of time to see what it was really like before he decided not to go, but he refused, and we didn't push it. He was completely fine with missing the party.
My question is whether we should be pushing him to do these things or continue to let it go. We don't want to upset him if it's not a big deal, and we want him to know that we accept him as he is. He is fine around new people and new places - there are just certain things that he gets scared of. He is very bright and has an active imagination, so I wonder if that might be contributing to his fearfulness (and I also wonder if our cautioning him not to do certain things because he could get hurt has contributed to it). We would appreciate your advice.
Thanks so much for your help.
From: WWL, Needham
There's a bright side to this: Being cautious will probably keep him from bungee jumping into a quarry. Driving with a friend who's been drinking. Having sex without protection.
You get my point. Being cautious is just a part of who your son is, and it's not a bad thing. In fact, I think it's great that he can identify things that frighten him; that shows self-awareness and maturity. I also think your wife's suggestion of checking out the party site ahead of time was spot-on; it shows acceptance and support of who he is, and it also gives him coping skills. That he wasn't interested in that skill at that moment doesn't mean you should stop offering them. It just means that at that point in time, he couldn't handle more.
You know, your email made me smile because it reminded me a bit of what my son was like at this age. He was on the cautious side, too, especially compared to some of his playmates, and his father and I had some of the same worries: Had we unwittingly made him overly-cautious? Should we encourage him to push the envelope or just let him be? The advice I got, which I pass along to you, was mostly to let him be, but also to think of this as a tendency, not a trait, meaning it's something you can work with.
Identifying tendencies in your child and in yourself is a way to help them understand and accept differences. Sometimes it's a statement of fact: "You're a person who loves to draw, aren't you?" Other times it's a point of comparison: "You're a person who loves chocolate. I'm a person who loves vanilla." Once you've done that, you can also throw in his cautious nature. Here's how to put a positive spin on it: "You're a person who is slow to warm up to new experiences, aren't you?" That will help him identify this aspect of himself.
So continue to offer him coping skills. Check out a new party venue, a new playground, a new summer camp, a new swimming pool. Prescreen a potentially scary video. Talk through events that concern him. Ask him, "What can we do to help you get comfortable with this?" That kind of response is respectful without being pushy. He may well outgrow this tendency, but it's who he is right now.
At the end of fifth grade, my son was invited to an overnight birthday party. He told me he didn't want to go, so we declined. He didn't give a reason and I felt badly, wondering if he'd feel left out, since all his friends were going. "No way," he said. Clearly, that worry was my issue, not his, an important lesson for me. But meanwhile, the birthday boy got sick so the party was canceled. It got rescheduled at the start of sixth grade. This time, my son wanted to go. When I asked him why, he said, "The videos I knew they'd want to watch would have scared me last year, but now I'm older and I can handle them."
I thought that was pretty darn good.
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