Question of the Week: When Should Parents Encourage Cautious Children to Push Beyond Their Fears?


Confident smiling child1 Question of the Week: When Should Parents Encourage Cautious Children to Push Beyond Their Fears?Lately, I’ve been flooded with e-mails from readers asking me questions they’d like to see answered on this blog.

So last week I introduced a popular new feature, the Question of the Week, in which I post the questions I see most frequently, and ask you to answer and discuss them via your comments.

Last week’s post, on whether teachers should base grades on class participation, generated a huge reaction, which I’ll soon post about.

Here is this week’s question:

When should parents encourage cautious children to push beyond their fears, and when should they respect their innate sense of limits?

This week, I’m going to start the ball rolling with advice from well-known research psychologist Elaine Aron — but I still want to hear about your personal experiences (and so do fellow readers!)

In one of her books, Aron writes about Jim, one of the best fathers she knows. Jim is a carefree extrovert, and he has two young daughters. The first daughter, Betsy, is just like him, but the second daughter, Lily, is more sensitive – a keen but anxious observer of her world. Jim embraced Lily’s way of being, but at the same time he didn’t want her to grow up shy.

So, writes Aron, he “became determined to introduce her to every potentially pleasurable opportunity in life, from ocean waves, tree climbing, and new foods to family reunions, soccer, and varying her clothes rather than wearing one comfortable uniform. In almost every instance, Lily initially thought these novel experiences were not such good ideas, and Jim always respected her opinion. He never forced her, although he could be very persuasive. He simply shared his view of a situation with her – the safety and pleasures involved, the similarities to things she already liked. He would wait for that little gleam in her eye that said she wanted to join in with the others, even if she couldn’t yet.

“Jim always assessed these situations carefully to ensure that she would not ultimately be frightened, but rather be able to experience pleasure and success. Sometimes he held her back until she was overly ready. Above all, he kept it an internal conflict, not a conflict between him and her… And if she or anyone else comments on her quietness or hesitancy, Jim’s prompt reply is, ‘That’s just your style. Other people have different styles. But this is yours. You like to take your time and be sure.’ Jim also knows that part of her style is befriending anyone whom others tease, doing careful work, noticing everything going on in the family, and being the best soccer strategist in her league.”

Please share your own experiences. Thanks!


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  1. bande on 12.04.2011 at 07:53 (Reply)

    Wow, I want Jim to be my Dad! I can’t even imagine what my life might be like now if I’d had someone like that in my life when I was growning up. How affirming!

  2. Canaan on 12.04.2011 at 09:06 (Reply)

    These are important, thought provoking and ubiquitous questions. Seems to me concrete examples help the most. If you go to toddler gymnastics class or Gymboree, for example, roughly half the kids appear to jump right into the activities gleefully. Roughly half are somewhere on the ‘need cajoling/inhibited/cautious’ side - and you can see in bright relief their mothers/fathers/caregivers struggling, some gently and well, others more painfully - with this question moment by moment. A couple things I’ve noticed: 1) Bringing the more cautious kid to the event space EARLY, (well early, like 15, even 20 minutes early) helps them to accommodate, study, get comfortable and for the danger sensor to calm down a bit, making it more likely they can participate sooner ultimately. 2) Let’s say there’s ten activities - trampoline, balls, tunnel, etc., and the quieter child is already comfortable with one among them from a friend’s house or pre-school. GO THERE FIRST AND LINGER THERE. That might be obvious, but the important part is to linger there. Even if the coach or supervisor asks you to move along and try the other stations “like the other kids,” try to stand your ground and say, “we’d actually prefer to stay here a while we really like this one, if it’s not too much trouble.” This is constructive twice over, first because it gives the child the opportunity to get comfortable, study other kids and stations from a safe distance, and begin to master the whole environment; and, just as importantly, it gives the child a model for reasonably asserting control over the environment around THEIR preferences, not necessarily or always around their supervisor’s preferences.

    THE PROBLEM, of course, is that this kind of parenting takes a lot of time and energy and often there’s no immediate payoff. If you, understandably, don’t have those extra twenty minutes to arrive early - actually going to the event space once or twice BEFORE the sessions even begin, simply to observe is ideal - then this advice only adds to the frustration. This dilemma was alluded to by a reader worrying about the demands of perfection parenting in a previous thread and probably warrants some thought around here!

    (Just a layman’s theory from personal observation: seems to me you can break kids in these environments into two groups: those who enjoy the “experience” of new activities, sensations, and physicality versus and those who prefer “mastery”. The experience seekers tend to dash form station to station, but don’t linger long; whereas the quieter kids tend to go to many fewer stations, linger longer and really study the trampoline for example, the springs, the gap, the bounce motion. While cajoling the quieter kid to get on the trampoline for the first time has its real frustrations (and joys once mastered), don’t forget that parenting the ‘experience seeking’ kid includes the joy of all that motion and exhileration but also the frustration of trying to slow him or her down enough to focus on mastering the mechanics of the skill itself, which these kids often skip over. This seems to me to be the yin and yang of all this that’s fascinating and fun.)

  3. Luna on 12.04.2011 at 15:43 (Reply)

    As a child I was extremely shy and introverted outside my family. My first day of school was torture. I hated doing new things and going outside my comfort zone. If I was pushed, which a few times I was, the results were terrible. I felt like crawling under my bed and hiding. In fact I remember hiding in my room a few times when I was pushed too hard to do things. To this day I need to take my time in new situations though I am interested in many things am open to suggestions and constantly strive to learn more. My son is a neat combination. He is a socially adept introvert who has an adventurous streak but does not in any way like to be pushed into something new and we have never tried to push him. We will ask him if he wants to do something. Show him what it involves and if he says no we respect that completely. If it is possible we will leave the information out for him to review in case he changes his mind but that is about it. A few days ago I was reflecting with my husband and asked if we should have pushed him harder to try new things. We agreed that we could not have done so without (this may sound weird) breaking something inside him. That is exactly how we felt. He is now 16 and still needs to try things in his own time but he seems to be speeding up a bit. He very much knows his own mind and even his friends can’t convince him to do something he doesn’t want to do. An excellent side-effect of him learning that when he say no thanks that is all he has to say. Also since we have never pushed him he seems to really trust our judgement and will ask us if we think something is a good fit for him if he is unsure.

  4. Christy on 12.04.2011 at 15:43 (Reply)

    One good thing for parents to remember, especially about children who differ from them in personality style and in likes and dislikes, is that not every child has to take part in every activity just because everyone else is or because conventional wisdom says they ought to. For instance, when I was 10 or so, my parents forced me to be in softball for a season, “because it would be good for me to experience it” or such. It was not good for me to experience it, and I hated every moment of it. I was scared to death of the ball hitting me in the head, and guess what: the ball hit me in the head once, and that did not desensitize me to my fear and dislike of the game. I just plain hated being in softball. I would have loved to be in ballet, where I would have gotten plenty of exercise and all the special socialization extraverted parents believe introverted children need. Just because outdoor sports are popular for children doesn’t mean that every child is missing out on a vital part of childhood by not being in outdoor sports.
    A child who hangs back from engaging isn’t necessarily afraid of engaging. Maybe the activity doesn’t attract. Maybe the child is using his brain to observe more than he would in taking part. Children don’t necessarily need to be forced to take part. Encouraged, yes; I have always found myself taking part in things more often if one person comes up and asks me if I want to. But if I say no, I mean no. For every activity parents make their children be involved in, there are probably five or ten that the children should be allowed to decide on themselves.

  5. Amy on 12.04.2011 at 23:39 (Reply)

    This question made me smile, because my mom and I can now laugh about a “defining moment” in my childhood. At about age 9, we ate at restaurant with my family and I needed a fork - I asked my mom to get it for me because I was feeling too shy to go and ask the waiter. She told me I needed to get it for myself (I don’t remember the exact wording of course). At the time I remember feeling nervous about talking with a stranger, and even though I didn’t “want to”, I did it anyway and it wasn’t so bad.
    We since talked about this as kind of a turning point with me, mom “made me” go do that because she knew I was capable of it. And ultimately, I felt safe because my parents were right there with me.
    Little things like that built my confidence so I became the kind of kid who ran for student government - but who still identifies as an introvert.

    Thanks Susan for the blog - am enjoying it a lot!

  6. Melissa on 28.04.2011 at 16:38 (Reply)

    This is an issue I think about every day, primarily in connection with my son (now 11) but also occasionally thinking back to my childhood and wondering what did/didn’t work or could have worked better. Our tack is to respect who our son is in combination with encouraging gradual explorations out of his comfort zone - mostly led by his cues but some encouraged by us. This has played out in different ways as he has grown from infant/toddler to gradeschooler and middleschooler and now to entering jr high next year. As an infant/toddler I always gave him a verbal explanation about what to expect in new situations (or was honest if I didn’t know) and built-in “down-time” after particularly intense experiences. We picked his preschool and kindergarten very carefully. As a gradeschooler, we have never forced him to try anything, but we have planned activities for him such as nature camp that we’ve gotten his buy-in for, usually by discussing it way in advance, explaining what to expect, etc. We did wait until he was 7 or 8 for trying anything that involved time away from family (other than school) for a prolonged period of time. We might even talk through that the first day of something new will be hard, but that it will get better after that. Around age 9/10 he self-motivated to wanting to seek out more experiences, and we planned some together (traveling soccer, kung fu, fencing, theatre camp, others). At eleven, he is definitely a classic introvert (like me) who requires alone time and down time to refuel. However, he also excels in school, is clear about what he likes/doesn’t like, and is willing to try new things on his schedule. We are constantly rebalancing, operating on his cues but also trying to think ahead. Our daughter (7) does not appear to be introverted and is admittedly “easier” in many ways to parent - less planning ahead, less worrying - about some issues:) - with plenty to think about in other areas. Each are treasures.

    1. Susan Cain on 28.04.2011 at 21:15 (Reply)

      You sound like a very sensitive parent, Melissa. I’m curious whether all your attentiveness has resulted in your son feeling good about who he is and, specifically, about his reflective nature.

  7. Jennifer on 22.07.2013 at 16:01 (Reply)

    It’s such a difficult balancing act. My daughter (newly six) is highly reactive and extremely slow to warm. Her main difficulties are transitioning into a social situation (even a very familiar one) and coping with something unexpected. For example, she almost always has trouble entering the (small) group at her in-home day care, even though she’s been going there 3-4 times a week since age 18 months (with the same children!) and loves it. (She can’t answer her friends when they greet her, and hangs back from even her closest playmates.) Likewise, other group activities, such as swimming and soccer, often start with tears, although she’s all smiles once she actually joins in, and doesn’t want to stop going. If there’s a new adult that she doesn’t expect, she’s terrified. My husband and I are both shy introverts ourselves, and certainly understand her, but we find that if we give her the option to NOT engage, she won’t — she’ll do anything to stay within her comfort zone. Since we know that she enjoys herself once she’s involved, we DO use a bit of a heavy hand, basically telling her she has to do it and not letting her escape. We try to make it easier by doing all the usual things — signing her up only for activities she’s consented to, always going with a friend or in a familiar setting (trying to get the same teacher/coach again and again). Her daycare was chosen with care, and her kindergarten (starting this fall, a year late) will be a tiny Quaker school with an emphasis on peace and community. So we don’t feel like we’re throwing her to the wolves, but we do feel as if she needs to be pushed to some degree in order to become more desensitized to social situations. But I know that I often appear as the “bad” pushy parent on the sidelines — I hate that!

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