Think of a cautious child as "slow to warm up"

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  February 16, 2011 06:00 AM

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Dear Barbara,

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

Dear WWL,

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.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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5 comments so far...
  1. Spot-on advice, I think! One thing I'd add is that as he gets older, having a buddy for some activities might be a helpful addition. My middle-school-aged child was kind of interested in sleepaway camp, but was too anxious to go alone. When we discovered a friend had the same opinion, we paired them up, off they went, and they had a good time. That can work for smaller things, too, and has many times over the years. If a child knows they have one person they can focus on and turn to, it can be the necessary anchor to try something new.

    Posted by TempestInATeapot February 16, 11 11:20 AM
  1. I agree with Barbara. The behavior here is significant enough that I too would definitely want to try to help him cope better. But tread lightly and don't force him to do anything he doesn't want to do.

    Posted by geocool February 16, 11 12:06 PM
  1. Great letter and response! My oldest, now 13, was like this when he was younger and is even now quite confident with what he doesn't like. His after-school program has a rock-climbing wall he was never interested in going more than a few feet up. That was high enough for him, yet he'll happily walk all over my roof. He doesn't do most amusement park rides, especially roller coasters, but likes water slides, even the ones that are high and fast. We, too, had invites to many birthday parties - especially when he was younger - that were held at places that were overwhelming or over stimulating, so we would either decline the invite if it sounded too scary (one was laser tag for 5 year olds - really?) or we would go but I would bring something for him to do (legos, coloring books) if he decided that the main activity was too much for him. There is sometimes no logic in this, and I've learned that if he says "no thanks" it's my job to trust that he knows himself and move on.

    FWIW, my once-fearful, clingy and slow to warm up child now plays two fast contact sports, hockey and lacrosse, frequently sleeps over at friends' houses, enjoys slasher movies and shows like "Ghost Hunters" and as mentioned above, will climb a roof or go down a water slide without a second thought. To the LW, while your son may always have certain things he doesn't enjoy, he will outgrow a lot of this if you just take it in stride and respect his reservations.

    Posted by Jen February 16, 11 12:42 PM
  1. Thank you Jen! I have a two year old who struggles with her shyness, fearfulness and reticence. It's great to know that shy kids can grow out from under it and embrace their more adventurous side.

    Posted by wwsuzi February 18, 11 03:18 PM
  1. I've been working with kids as a swim instructor, and I've noticed a lot of this cautiousness tends to go away with maturity.

    We had one kid who, at the beginning of camp, was hanging on the teacher like a koala and wearing a lifejacket. Ten weeks later, he was bombing around the pool and is now refusing flotation of any type.

    Another girl was terrified of the deep end or jumping in. One day, I saw her make a break for it into the deep end, and just let her go. Now, she's completely fearless and bombs right into the deep end.

    Posted by AP February 22, 11 06:54 PM
 
5 comments so far...
  1. Spot-on advice, I think! One thing I'd add is that as he gets older, having a buddy for some activities might be a helpful addition. My middle-school-aged child was kind of interested in sleepaway camp, but was too anxious to go alone. When we discovered a friend had the same opinion, we paired them up, off they went, and they had a good time. That can work for smaller things, too, and has many times over the years. If a child knows they have one person they can focus on and turn to, it can be the necessary anchor to try something new.

    Posted by TempestInATeapot February 16, 11 11:20 AM
  1. I agree with Barbara. The behavior here is significant enough that I too would definitely want to try to help him cope better. But tread lightly and don't force him to do anything he doesn't want to do.

    Posted by geocool February 16, 11 12:06 PM
  1. Great letter and response! My oldest, now 13, was like this when he was younger and is even now quite confident with what he doesn't like. His after-school program has a rock-climbing wall he was never interested in going more than a few feet up. That was high enough for him, yet he'll happily walk all over my roof. He doesn't do most amusement park rides, especially roller coasters, but likes water slides, even the ones that are high and fast. We, too, had invites to many birthday parties - especially when he was younger - that were held at places that were overwhelming or over stimulating, so we would either decline the invite if it sounded too scary (one was laser tag for 5 year olds - really?) or we would go but I would bring something for him to do (legos, coloring books) if he decided that the main activity was too much for him. There is sometimes no logic in this, and I've learned that if he says "no thanks" it's my job to trust that he knows himself and move on.

    FWIW, my once-fearful, clingy and slow to warm up child now plays two fast contact sports, hockey and lacrosse, frequently sleeps over at friends' houses, enjoys slasher movies and shows like "Ghost Hunters" and as mentioned above, will climb a roof or go down a water slide without a second thought. To the LW, while your son may always have certain things he doesn't enjoy, he will outgrow a lot of this if you just take it in stride and respect his reservations.

    Posted by Jen February 16, 11 12:42 PM
  1. Thank you Jen! I have a two year old who struggles with her shyness, fearfulness and reticence. It's great to know that shy kids can grow out from under it and embrace their more adventurous side.

    Posted by wwsuzi February 18, 11 03:18 PM
  1. I've been working with kids as a swim instructor, and I've noticed a lot of this cautiousness tends to go away with maturity.

    We had one kid who, at the beginning of camp, was hanging on the teacher like a koala and wearing a lifejacket. Ten weeks later, he was bombing around the pool and is now refusing flotation of any type.

    Another girl was terrified of the deep end or jumping in. One day, I saw her make a break for it into the deep end, and just let her go. Now, she's completely fearless and bombs right into the deep end.

    Posted by AP February 22, 11 06:54 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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