By Mary Teresa Bitti
“Snowboard down the biggest hill. Jump off a balcony.” These are among the latest entries in nine-year-old Christopher Yates’ wish list of daredevil feats he’d love to try. This is par for the course for a boy who skips the stairs in favour of sliding down the banister, loves speed, and will, according to his mom Clare, “do pretty much anything.”
“Christopher is very high energy,” says the Oakville, Ont. mom. “I am always telling him, “Protect your head! No, you are not made of rubber.”
Sound familiar? If your thrill-seeker is plotting his or her next amazing trick, relax. “It’s normal for kids, especially boys, to want to see what will happen if…” says Dr. Peter Nieman, a Calgary-based pediatrician and father of four, including three daredevil boys ages four, seven and nine (who, as Dr. Nieman points out, find power in numbers and like to torment lifeguards at the local pool with their daring exploits).
In fact, a study out of the University of Guelph reveals that while girls base their risk-taking decisions on the level of danger involved and likelihood of injury, boys focus on the potential for fun, with little regard for personal safety.
“If we put kids on a continuum, on one end you have highly inhibited, anxious children who are super cautious; on the other end there are children who will jump into things without thinking,” says Dr. Greg Schoepp, a registered psychologist at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton. “They are in the moment. It looks good, it looks fun, and so they do it. Afterwards they might think “that wasn’t such a good idea.” In other words, some kids are wired for impulsive, risky behaviour while others are not. And if you, as a parent, are always on the lookout for the next adrenalin rush and your lifestyle reflects that, your child will likely follow suit, says Dr. Schoepp.
At the same time, there is a fine line between impulsivity and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, says Dr. Schoepp. “If your child is swinging at the far end of the continuum and is having a lot of difficulty stopping and thinking about his behaviour, you may want to work with a pediatrician to rule out ADHD.”
Still, there are things you can do to keep your Evel Knievel/Tony Hawk-in-the-making safe.
So how do you encourage your child’s adventuresome nature and keep him out of the ER? One way is to provide a positive counterpart to the risky activities he is drawn to. “These kids are active and need a physical outlet,” says Dr. Nieman. “The worst thing you can do is keep them cooped up. Thrill seeking may be a way to break the boredom.” Organized and high-energy sports such as lacrosse and gymnastics are a great way to help them burn off that excess energy and curb their enthusiasm for danger, says Dr. Nieman.
The fact that her son Jackson is not reckless allows his mom, Gabrielle Bauer of Toronto, to feel comfortable allowing him to explore his thrill-seeking side. Last year at the cottage, Jackson (then eight) climbed up about 20 feet on a narrow, slippery tree branch overhanging the lake and jumped off. “We pointed out that the only reason we let him climb up that tree was that we knew the water was at least 20 feet deep,” says Bauer. But that freedom goes hand-in-hand with talks about safety, the dangerous consequences of certain tricks (broken bones) and what that means in the long term (arm in a cast for months), and the understanding on Jackson’s part that he’s only allowed to try things his parents agree to. “I still can’t believe he did it. On the other hand, he’s not what I’d call reckless. He loves to test his limits, but he also has a good sense of what’s safe and what isn’t.”
Nothing keeps a child safer than supervision. “I watch Christopherlike a hawk,” says Clare Yates. “Parents can prevent a lot just by being there.” Still, when Christopher tested out his new 50cc motorized bike under the watchful eye of his dad Tony, he pushed it to the limit and fell. Thankfully he was not hurt — but he was shaken. Dr. Nieman calls this reality discipline. “The consequences become the teacher. You got hurt. Now deconstruct what happened and think twice.” Christopher is certainly more cautious with his motorbike after the fall, says Yates, but his need for speed is still strong. He now wants to join a speed-skating club.
Mary Teresa Bitti is a freelance writer and mother of two children who, she is thankful, always look before they leap.