Childhood presents a wonderful opportunity to explore new activities and to try new things. Failure often doesn’t carry the same weight as it does in adulthood, and the playing field can be more level. By nature, many of those involved are also trying activities for the first time, or at least haven’t been at it for too long. So, what do you do if you have a reluctant kiddo? One that wants to stick to the same dance class or sport, or even avoids activities altogether? These suggestions can’t guarantee that your little naysayer will love the new experience, but they can help your child to at least give it a shot.
We can be just as bad as our kids! As adults, we typically know what we’re good at and what makes our palms sweaty just thinking about. If we want our kids to be brave enough to put themselves out there, we have to be brave too. Talking about our nervousness with our kids allows them to see that we don’t let those feelings hold us back from trying something that could be fun. Modeling is what forced me to try soccer classes as an adult and what got me up on stage to sing karaoke solo. Pre-elementary aged children will often join right in if they see you trying something interesting. Use that to your advantage and let the fun begin!
Everyone likes to feel that they have some control over their lives, and kids are no exception. Giving several options allows your child to make a choice, and to feel as though they have a say in the decision. Presenting your ideas in a collaborative way is also often more effective than just telling your child what to do. You might explain why you are encouraging your child to try a particular thing, and why you think trying something new is important so that they understand. Allowing them to be a part of the process makes it more likely that it will be a positive experience every step of the way.
Provide an Off-Ramp
Trying a new activity can be especially scary to children if they feel as though they will be stuck, whether they enjoy the activity or not. It helps to talk to a reluctant child about an “off-ramp.” In other words, determine the point at which it would be acceptable to drop the activity if it truly is not working out. Discussing what that looks like up front helps children to understand the expectations for their commitment and reassures them that there is a way out if the activity ends up turning into a negative experience.
Just like us, children can get thrown off by ideas that seem to come out of the blue. Starting slow and working the new idea into casual conversation helps your child to be less reactive when it is decision-making time. You might talk about kids your child knows who enjoy the proposed activity. You may need to talk about the new idea multiple times before your child is open to it.
It can be helpful to remind your child of another time he didn’t want to try something new, but he did and found he liked it. Or, a time that she wasn’t that great at something, but with practice became better and then enjoyed doing it. You may find that your child also responds well to compliments as part of the introduction to the new idea. For example, “You know, I really admire how you put yourself out there to try things that might feel scary at first. You didn’t know how to ride a bike, but you worked at it, and now look how great you can ride! I learned about a new program at your school…”
When it’s a choice between a child putting himself out there and playing Mario Kart or Fortnite, familiar electronics will win every time. Sometimes it takes pulling the plug and encouraging some good old-fashioned boredom to help kids be more open to new ideas. One word of caution — don’t make the tech break directly tied to the new activity, or kids will start off their new extracurricular with a sense of resentment.
Involve Them in Planning
What if the thing you’re encouraging isn’t so much a new activity as it is an experience? What if you’re just trying to push your family out of its rut so that you all can explore new places? Let your child help plan the experience for maximum buy-in! If you have multiple children, allow them to take turns choosing. As they get older, they can also help with the planning including deciding what time to leave, where to eat, or what to see along the way. Not only does it get them interested and open, but you’re also teaching them a great life skill.
Alison Bogle is an Austin-based freelance writer and mom of three.