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Little Dare Devils

My youngest child, Madeline, has always been the biggest risk-taker of my six kids. At 18 months, she pulled a stepladder over to the freezer, opened the door, and tried to lick the ice that had accumulated on the shelf (her tongue stuck). She would also frequently push a chair up to the sink, turn on the water, and "help" with the dishes (occasionally crawling into the basin herself). As she got older, she graduated to bigger thrills: scaling playground equipment most preschoolers shied away from and flinging herself into the deep end of the pool before she knew how to swim.

All kids love to jump and run, but some like to kick it up a few notches. They're not content with clambering over a couch; they must climb the highest bookshelf. Ellison is only 3, yet he recently insisted on playing with his 5-year-old brother, Solomon, in a summer basketball league (he managed to keep up). "He has no fear," says his mom, Angela Burt-Murray, of South Orange, New Jersey.

What Makes a Daredevil?
There has been some research on whether people who have pleasure-inducing brain chemicals like dopamine tend to be predisposed to adventuresome behavior, but there's yet to be any conclusive evidence that those possessing the so-called thrill-seeking gene are more prone to seeking out potentially hazardous experiences. One thing researchers can get behind, though, is this: Family predisposition can play a large part in determining whether or not a child is a risk-taker. "If the parents are thrill-seekers, there's a good chance their offspring will be as well," says William Coleman, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School, Chapel Hill.

Moreover, our society admires physical derring-do. We see mountain climbers in ads and express admiration for their feats; we take our kids to the circus and make a fuss over how brave the trapeze artists are. A child who's looking for approval might decide that taking risks is one way to get it.

And such behavior can be an attention getter. For instance, a child might perform reckless stunts to divert his parents' focus away from a sibling. Around age 3 or 4, some kids try to fit in by imitating peers and role models. Boys are also more likely to be risk-takers  -- one need only look at an ER log to see that boys outnumber girls in trauma visits.

Life With a Thrill-Seeker
Caring for an adventurer can be exhausting. "There are days when I want to make my sons wear protective gear from head to toe  -- helmets, chest protectors, knee pads, fire-safety suits, everything," says Burt-Murray. "Everybody tells me boys will be boys, but I worry that they're going to hurt themselves."

But there's an upside. "Daredevils tend to be very energetic, physically adept, and have positive attitudes about life," says Jodie Plumert, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Iowa. Plus, attempting something new, and mastering it, builds self-confidence. It's the balancing act  -- keeping your child safe without squashing her spirit  -- that's a challenge. Here's how to do it.

Rosemary Black's last article for Parenting was "Kid Food Gets a Makeover," in the September 2004 issue. She lives in Pleasantville, New York.

Ages 1 and 2

Toddlers don't have a sense of what they can and can't do, and tend to get into trouble mostly around the house. They may try to jump from the middle step of a staircase, or get into the bathtub and turn on the hot water. "Kids this age are curious and will do things that are potentially dangerous, but risk-takers do so continually," says Coleman. "They don't heed warnings and they'll find a way to do something or go somewhere that's off-limits." And they don't have the cognitive ability to understand what could happen if anything goes wrong. To make sure your toddler doesn't get hurt:

* Childproof. Eliminating temptations not only helps keep him safe, it also means you won't have to constantly tell him "no." Get down on all fours, crawl around the house, and get rid of any hazards at his level. You'll need to go above and beyond what other parents can get by with, though. My husband and I not only installed safety gates and electrical outlet covers, we also rearranged the furniture so Madeline couldn't climb from one piece to another, and we even installed new carpet  -- soft and deep  -- with her pratfalls in mind.

* Stay vigilant. Work out a system so you and your partner always know who's on duty. When it's your turn, keep your child in sight, even if that means picking up her crayons and paper and moving them into the laundry room with you.

* Warn caregivers. Don't let a babysitter or playdate mom find out the hard way that your child gravitates toward trouble.

* Provide safe adventures. If you let your child get his kicks while you watch, he'll be less likely to seek them elsewhere.

* Distract her. I found that if Madeline wanted to scale the six-foot-high jungle gym at the playground, I could lure her to the sandbox with a bucket and a sieve.

* Talk about it. Don't expect your child to have the self-control to rein in a dangerous whim, but you can certainly lay the groundwork. Explain that she can get hurt if she stands in the chair and that she needs to get your okay before trying something new.

* Don't constantly chide. Your child will tune out a refrain of "Watch out! You'll get hurt!" Instead, do your best to defuse situations before they become serious.

Ages 3 and 4

Preschoolers tend to overestimate their physical abilities, and will try such activities as jumping off high objects, leaping down stairs and traversing monkey bars before they're ready. "Their fine and gross motor skills are developing, so they assume they're capable of anything," says Plumert.

Becky Nickol of Orlando, Florida, was horrified when she looked out the window and saw 4-year-old Alex swinging six feet off the ground in a cardboard box that he'd hung over a tree limb with some twine (she got him down safely). "He simply has no sense of danger, just a sense of adventure," she says. To help your preschooler stay safe:

* Discuss his behavior. Kids this age are able to understand when and why most situations are dangerous, so talk to your child about what constitutes risky behavior and why he needs to stop before he metaphorically  -- or literally  -- dives in. Tell him that if he thinks he might get in trouble for doing something, he should ask you first.

* Impose consequences. If your child runs out into the middle of the street during a snowball fight, for instance, you might make her come inside for a few hours. But also praise her when she acts responsibly.

* Explain what's seen. Point out that the actor in a favorite TV show can't really jump off a roof and land on his feet. Before you go to the circus, talk about how long the performers trained to perform their feats, and show him the safety net beneath them.

* Continue to keep a close eye. Even though you can leave kids this age alone for short stretches, you'll still have to be more vigilant than most parents of preschoolers. When your child's playing in her room, for instance, check on her at 15-minute intervals.

* Provide outlets for his energy. Take him to the park where he can swing as high as he dares, or sign him up for a gymnastics class where he can practice stunts under professional supervision.

Ages 5 and Up

Grade-schoolers will deliberately take risks, even when they know they're flirting with danger. "They feel a sense of elation and accomplishment when they succeed," says Coleman. To keep them in line:

* Discuss consequences. After Tony, age 5, rolled down the stairs inside a canister (he was knocked unconscious), his mom, Kim Dell'Angela of Chicago, explained to him that head injuries can sometimes be permanent.

* Encourage self-regulation. Ask your child to pause before doing anything risky and visualize what might happen. Tell her if she sees a bad outcome, she shouldn't do it until she's checked with you first.

* Enforce all rules. Take away a privilege when he acts irresponsibly.

* Provide alternatives. Sign her up for an activity like karate or dance, and be sure she has enough time to run off her energy around the backyard or park.

I not only enrolled Madeline in ballet, I also persuaded my husband to take her ice-skating on Sunday afternoons. The two of them, along with Kerrie, 11, often spend hours at the rink while I sit in the lounge with a cappuccino and the newspaper. Once in a while, I wave as they cruise by. But mostly I just sit and enjoy the peace, knowing that my little daredevil is safely doing what she loves best: going fast and far. -- Encouraging a timid child Some kids resist taking any risks because they underestimate their physical abilities, fear failure, or don't want to disappoint a parent. To help your child feel more confident about trying new things:

* Gently encourage him. Tell him you believe in him and that you're still proud of him even if he's afraid to sled down the big hill. You might also let him know that it took you a while to master things like ice-skating and bike-riding.

* Find out why he's reluctant. He may have a misconception or an unfounded fear  -- like he'll fall down the stairs if he's not holding your hand  -- that you can easily dispel.

* Take it slow. He'll balk if you rush him into an activity he sees as perilous. Let him watch others riding two-wheelers, for instance, before you ask if he wants to give it a go.

* Do a reality check. You may be pushing him to do something he's not yet ready for. If you think that might be the case, wait a month or so before suggesting it again.