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Written by:  The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood in Cary
Date: June 1, 2009

Q: My 8-year-old son shows interest in activities, such as joining a summer basketball league, but as the time gets closer, he often expresses reservations to the point of refusing the activity. Is it a good idea to push him?

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 you have a more complicated task. Here are some ways to think about your 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

Your son may offer some reasons for not trying something new that don’t make much sense or you know are excuses; in that case, we recommend that you challenge him, but in a gentle and supportive way. You can acknowledge the part of his excuse that has some merit so he does not have to resort to defensiveness.

For example, if he says that he does not want to play basketball because the gym is so noisy, you 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.”

You can use this situation to help your son grow emotionally. He can learn that the reasons he gives for pulling back may be incomplete explanations. Your 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, he might say that he is worried that his coach will be mean. You would have the opportunity to say that most coaches are not mean or you know the coach, and he is kind. You can suggest that you and your son talk after each of the first few practices, and if the coach is indeed mean, the two of you will develop a plan.

Discussion often leads to surprises and opportunities, for child and parent alike. Take opportunities to remind your 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.

Share personal examples

You might share your experiences. But be careful that you are not coercive or patronizing. Model an open attitude Ultimately, children learn most from their parents’ attitudes and examples.

Ask yourself how often your son 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 you blaze this path, your son will have a road to travel.

If you decide to provide a clearer model for your child in this way, you can assume that the fruits of your labors will ripen slowly, but ultimately you will make a difference in your child’s willingness to try new adventures.

Although this guidance may help, you 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, 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 you do insist that your child try something new, and the protest is extreme, you might want to back off. If the experience does not turn out to be a positive one, you might also think twice before pushing hard again, at least for a while.

But whatever stance you take, remember that continued discussion, respectful encouragement and your own example are likely to eventually lead to your child having more freedom to follow, develop and enjoy his true interests.

The question of the month may be a composite or illustration of questions families have asked. To submit a question about children’s behavior or emotional development, send an e-mail to: editorial@carolinaparent.com, marked Ask Lucy Daniels.



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