For the sake of her own sanity, Toronto mom Niki Remecki has had to learn to let her three-year-old son, Bram, set his own limits. Since the time he scaled their floor-to-ceiling entertainment unit at 14 months, Bram has been a fearless explorer who loves nothing more than running, jumping, climbing and tumbling, with apparently little regard for his personal safety.
Often labelled “spirited” or “high-energy,” kids who have a fearless streak may be more prone to putting themselves in situations that can quickly turn from adventure to misadventure. “They tend to have this driving force of wanting to do everything, touch everything, see everything, hear everything,” explains Julie Romanowski, a parenting coach, children’s behaviour and discipline specialist, and owner of Miss Behaviour in Surrey, BC. “All toddlers are like that, but these are the children with whom that drive is sort of over and beyond the norm.”
If you’ve got a little daredevil on your hands, here’s how to manage this need to take risks—without causing you to go completely grey-haired before she hits kindergarten.
With fearless toddlers, safety is the most important issue. When kids with this temperament become mobile, they’re into everything. “At this age, children do not have the reasoning skills to make the best or safest choices for themselves, so it’s up to parents to provide guidance,” says Aimée Yazbek, a clinical psychologist with Halifax’s IWK Health Centre Preschool Pediatric Psychology Service. “You can do this by changing aspects of the environment and providing supervision at all times.”
Installing baby gates and outlet covers, and removing potentially dangerous objects from areas your kid can reach are essential steps in toddler-proofing your home. But don’t rely too heavily on these physical barriers or introduce them without discussion, Romanowski cautions, as many kids might disregard them or even see them as a challenge. “What happens is that we miss the lesson of teaching the child what’s OK and not OK,” she says. “It’s about teaching them ‘This gate is here because I need to keep you safe,’ and helping them understand what those boundaries are.”
The same holds true for general safety rules. Explaining that it’s hazardous to run out onto the street or through a parking lot because he could be hit by a car will be much more effective than ordering your child to hold your hand in these situations without explaining why and discussing your expectations. If a close encounter does happen, make sure everyone has had time to calm down before you go over the rules and explain why it’s important to follow them. Your kid will be more likely to absorb the info if he’s not still freaked out, and you’ll be less likely to react impulsively out of fear.
Once you’ve established safety rules with your toddler, be sure to consistently enforce them and follow through. “You can set your child up for success by reviewing rules and expectations, and keeping those expectations realistic,” says Yazbek. So, if climbing the bookcase is a no-no (as it should be), don’t laugh if it happens when Grandma and Grandpa are visiting. Romanowski recommends implementing “a four- to six-week period when you are über-consistent: You put in the methods, you get everybody on board, and you give it some time to grow.” It’s also important to teach kids that there are appropriate times and places for running wild. At the park? Yes. At the grocery store? Not so much.
Let them play
Giving spirited kids the opportunity to get their ya-yas out in safe, appropriate ways will make everyone’s lives easier. Sport programs, and kinder-gyms with climbing equipment and lots of soft landing mats are great venues for high-energy kids to take risks safely while exploring and developing their physicality. Despite the fact that she has to watch him constantly, Remecki takes Bram to a variety of local parks—often three in one day—to allow him to run off energy and keep him occupied and happy. This also lets Remecki see what Bram can handle and what she should encourage, she says. “If he wants to walk on a two-foot-high wall, we tell him to climb up and we’ll hold his hand.”
Embrace the chaos
Life is never dull with a fearless kid in your family, and it can be exhausting and sometimes frustrating. While it’s fine to call your child “spirited” or “high-energy,” try to avoid framing his behaviour as negative. At a certain point, it’s important to accept that this is just the way he is. Your kid may get a few minor bumps and bruises from time to time, but as long as he isn’t in danger or putting others in harm’s way, he’ll be OK.
This article appeared in our January 2017 issue with headline “Born to be wild,” on p.52.