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Raising little daredevils is challenging work


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 2, 2000

By the time my stepson Shawn was 5, he had climbed on -- and fallen off -- every piece of furniture and counter in our house. When I got tired of chasing after him, I would bribe him with a Twinkie to sit down and tell me about his numerous scars and scrapes.

His body was a relief map of misadventures: an oval bruise on his left knee from jumping over three basement steps at his grandmother's house; a deep scar on his right knee from racing around with a shopping cart at Kmart; a plum-size lump on the back of his head from leaping off a playground swing while pretending to be a trapeze artist. In fact, he was such an active kid that after one week's visit my voice was hoarse from barking orders: "Get down; come here; don't do that; leave the dog alone; close the bird cage door."

Raising little daredevils is stressful. Not only do we worry about them getting hurt, we wonder whether their many injuries and trips to the emergency room will arouse accusations of abuse. Making matters worse are the barbed remarks thrown out by well-meaning friends and relatives, such as, "Why don't you take him to a psychologist and find out if he's normal?" and "All he needs is some strong discipline."

Another underlying concern for parents of little risk-takers is that they may have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Although many kids with ADHD engage in risky behaviors, they are also chronically inattentive and impulsive in every setting: home, school, church, playground. To ease your anxieties, check with your pediatrician and ask for diagnostic testing.

It may be hard to be grateful now, but there are definite advantages to raising a daredevil. The good news: Children with fearless temperaments often possess positive skills. They tackle life's challenges with enthusiasm and ingenuity, refusing to take no for an answer. The bad news: Being a daredevil may continue throughout adolescence and beyond.

None of us wants to stifle our children's zest for living, but we need to set firm limits and boundaries for their protection. If your youngster continues to ride his Big Wheels tricycle into the street, for example, be prepared to park his wheels in the garage for a while. Use disciplinary methods such as time-outs to reinforce your message. Also, explain your rules to any caregivers who are part of your child's life, such as babysitters and grandparents. There's no substitute for diligent supervision, because strong-willed daredevils are manipulative. They know how to twist situations and outsmart most adults.

In order to help young children (under the age of 8) distinguish between what's real and what's fantasy, limit their viewing of violent cartoon and TV programs. Kids see characters who are punched, slugged and bopped get right up and walk away unscathed. Point out how unrealistic it is and what the outcome would really be if, for example, a bucket of water fell on somebody's head or a bag of marbles were scattered on stair steps.

It's crucial for children to learn that disobeying some rules have dangerous consequences, such as riding a bike without a helmet, not buckling seat belts or skateboarding without safety gear.

I've come to appreciate the benefits of knowing a boy like Shawn. His youthful antics and predicaments never fail to provoke laughs at family gatherings -- even though 20 years have passed since he "gunned the engine and laid rubber" with a Kmart shopping cart. His willingness to try new experiences, to grab life with both hands and to focus squarely on personal goals have served him well in adulthood.

It's encouraging news to us nervous parents to know that as kids grow and mature they will learn the consequences of their actions. Some would say that's what growing up is all about.

Carolyn Sandlin-Sniffen teaches language arts and reading at Seminole Middle School in Pinellas County.

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