The world of children seems to be divided among those who throw themselves into everything, those who are hesitant to stretch themselves, and those in the middle. Introducing new activities is easy for parents whose children make it easy for them, but some parents have a more complicated task. Their children are more reluctant to try new activities. Here are some ways that such parents can think about their situation.
Expanding experiences: Children ages 7 to 11 are usually more settled than during early childhood and adolescence. This is a time when they are both grounded firmly within the family and constantly springing outside the family for experiences on their own or with guiding adults other than parents, such as teachers or coaches. If early childhood is all about preparing to leave the nest, the grade school years are all about leaving the nest and building skills, experiences and friendships, and the competencies and confidence that enable a child to meet challenges.
Adolescents generally go through a period of time when they remove themselves from parental support and feel cut off and alone. At that crucial time, they need to be able to find within themselves a sustaining foundation of accomplishment. Expansions during grade school years can be considered necessary preparation for the coming challenges of adolescence.
Talking it over: Children who are reticent to try new activities may offer some reasons to their parents for not trying something new that don’t make much sense to their parents or they know are excuses; in that case, we recommend that parents challenge their child, but in a gentle and supportive way. Parents can acknowledge the part of the excuse that has some merit that will make it less likely that their child will become defensive.
For example, if a child says that he does not want to play basketball because the gym is so noisy, a parent might say, “I know that you don’t like noisy places. I can see that this would make you hesitant to join the team. But, I also know that you have done things that you knew would be noisy, like go to the circus. So, the noise must be only part of the reason. Let’s try to figure out the rest. If we do, you might be better able to understand your decision.”
Parents can use such situations to help their children grow emotionally. A child can learn that the reasons he gives for pulling back may be incomplete explanations. His parent’s discussion — and his rudimentary introspection — can help him better understand himself, which leads to self-mastery and self-confidence. He may also find that ideas held to the light of day may become less compelling.
For example, a child might say that he is worried that his coach will be mean. That would enable a parent to say that most coaches are not mean or they know the coach, and he is kind. A parent can suggest that they and their son talk after each of the first few practices, and if the coach is indeed mean, the two of them will develop a plan. Discussion often leads to surprises and opportunities, for child and parent alike.
Continuing with this situation as an illustration, a parent can take the opportunity to remind their son of his past enthusiasm about the idea of playing basketball and times that he might have been hesitant, but was ultimately glad that he tried something new. Parents might share their experiences, but should be careful that their efforts to help are not coercive or patronizing.
Model an open attitude: Ultimately, children learn most from their parents’ attitudes and examples. Parents should ask themselves how often their child has seen his parents try new things. Most to the point, how often has he seen his parents stretch to do something outside their comfort zone? Has he seen shy parents avoid social gatherings or make the effort to attend, and be glad that they did? If parents blaze this path, their child will have a road to travel.
If parents decide to provide a clearer model for their child in this way, they can assume that the fruits of their labors will ripen slowly, but ultimately they will make a difference in their child’s willingness to try new adventures.
Although this guidance may help, parents of a child who avoid stretching himself or herself will likely continue to be confronted with the question of whether to insist and, if so, how firmly. While we cannot offer a clear answer, parents should keep in mind the developmental importance of new experiences during these years. We recommend that parents exert greater pressure on those children whose world is remaining the most unchanged as grade school progresses. Of course, there is likely to be the most pushback from those children.
If parents do insist that their child try something new, and the protest is extreme, they might want to back off. If the experience does not turn out to be a positive one, it might also make sense to think twice before pushing hard again, at least for a while.
But whatever stance parents take, they should remember that continued discussion, respectful encouragement and their own example are likely to eventually lead to their child having more freedom to follow, develop and enjoy his true interests.
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