“How can I encourage my child to try new things?”
There is collective agreement among many parents that this can be difficult depending to a child’s temperament and overall outgoing-ness. Some children have no problem trying a new activity (like our children’s recent introduction to parkour, above), while others are just never quite up for it.
“New things” is outside their comfort zone and there are many reasons a child might not be enthusiastic about heading down that path. It means doing something unfamiliar or uncomfortable. It means not knowing what the outcome will be and that it may very well result in failure. It means a child might not be “good.” All of which are reasons to be scared.
But we adults know that some of the best things in life have come from stepping outside our comfort zones–trying new activities, learning new skills, and having different experiences. Pushing ourselves just a little bit is how we learn and grow and become oh-so-well-rounded. Of course we want our kids to become just as experienced and diversified. But this means they must be willing to try new things even when that seems daunting.
How can we teach this? When considering how to encourage your children to try something new, keep in mind a few of their most essential needs that must be met in order for a child to feel comfortable enough to agree to try it:
Children need a strong sense of autonomy–a realization of their basic skills and capabilities in taking care of themselves. A sense of, “I am capable,” and “I can do this.” Help your children develop autonomy by stepping back and allowing kids to take the lead in taking care of themselves. Teach them how to choose their own clothes, get themselves dressed, start their own baths or showers, make their own simple meals and snacks, fix things, build things, clean things. Feeling autonomous is the first step in being able to try anything different.
Children need a sense of confidence. This is different from autonomy in that instead of a sense of, “I can do this,” confidence is more a sense of, “I CAN do this!” and, “I am successful.”
Help kids develop this by celebrating successes when they occur. Wow! You did it! Look at what you’ve accomplished! That was hard. Congratulations! Thank you! You’re a huge help to this family. Remember: it’s not heaps of superficial praise from a parent that builds a child’s confidence, but regular encouraging words that draw out a child’s own thoughts on the experience. We want a child to be able to pat himself on the back, to praise himself and say, “I did a good job!” Confidence comes when one doesn’t have to look to others for praise and validation, but finds it within oneself.
When encouraging children to try new things, start with small challenges. Everyday successes. Build up confidence with the small things and he’ll be ready to tackle bigger “new things” in time.
Children need a sense of security. It’s a comfort that comes in knowing, “I am safe,” and, “I belong.” Strengthen your child’s sense of security on a daily basis by making time for them and paying attention during those times. Talk to them, but…mostly listen to what they have to say. Constantly aim to get to know who they are. Accept them wholly. Meet their needs regularly for nutrition, sleep, and physical connection. Have family routines. Play together. Get into the habit of empathizing and validating their feelings. Make sure to communicate to children that they are more important than anything else in the world…let them know, “I’ve got this; I’ve got you.”
Children need a sense of resilience. They must know that they can survive life’s challenges and hardships. That not everything will go their way, but they are capable of handling frustration and disappointment and moving forward. They must know: “I can survive this.”
Help kids learn that mistakes are OK by disciplining with problem solving versus punishment. Instead of looking for what to do to a child to teach a lesson, look for ways to work with a child in finding a solution. This teaches children that mistakes are a part of life and they’re fixable; mistakes are not anything to be feared.
You can set a powerful example of resilience by trying new things together with your child. Take a new art class together. Try a new activity. Go somewhere you’ve never been, or do something you’ve never done before…together. When you make mistakes, acknowledge them and figure out together what to do next. Talk about that you might not be good at this new skill yet, but you’re learning and having fun anyway. You can model resilience by allowing your child to see and be a part of challenges in a cooperative way.
When you first work on meeting these needs of children–autonomy, confidence, security, and resilience–you will be able to encourage your child to try new things with greater success. She’ll be ready to step outside that comfort zone because she’ll be well-equiped to know she can handle it. It won’t seem quite so scary out there.
If your child is having a hard time wanting to try whatever new activity you’re suggesting, take a step back and wait. Revisit some of the tools above. Suggest and encourage, but don’t push or insist. Encourage them through their small successes and make sure your relationship is secure.
Encouraging children doesn’t mean finding the right incentive or prize (I’ll give you $20 to try the rock-climbing wall). It doesn’t mean using your relationship as a bargaining tool (It will make mommy so happy if you play T-Ball this year). It doesn’t mean taking whatever means necessary to lure your child out of his comfort zone and try a new experience. It means strengthening a child’s inner senses of autonomy, confidence, security and resilience for him to be able to step out there on his own. To help him want to.
When children have this inner strength they know that they can try any new thing, and despite the discomfort, they will survive the mistakes as well as master the challenges.