Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Parenting

Daredevil Kids
by Jan Johnson

Their antics can turn any parent into a nervous wreck.
Learn to harness that fearlessness and celebrate that spunk.

I used to find odd contraptions, makeshift forts and other peculiar forms of recreation in my backyard. But ropes swinging high in the treetops and looped around the chimney was a new one for me. Within seconds, I was on full mother alert. My heart in my throat, I began scanning the heights for Jeff, my then 13-year-old son. Suddenly, a noise caught my attention. As I turned to locate the source, there he came, whooshing down a rope to the ground.

"You can't imitate the guys on Cliffhanger," I barked. "If you want to rappel, get training and proper equipment. Take the ropes down now."

Jeff complied, but within three months he'd persuaded his Boy Scout leaders to teach him to rappel and he'd bought his own equipment. How, I wondered, did a “fraidy cat” like me birth a kid so adventuresome that his friends have nicknamed him, "Braveheart"?

Some kids just seem to love thrills and challenges. But don’t confuse these thrill-a-minute types with panksters whose dangerous and sometimes destructive behavior is really a cry for attention. "A prankster endangers other people, but a thrill-seeker wants to master a task," says Edith Grotberg, a developmental psychologist with Institute for Mental Health Initiatives in Washington, D.C. "The progress of any society depends on people who risk failure and rejection to try new things."

Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia who has studied thrill-seekers, says, "Certain people love change, risk, intensity and unpredictability. High in energy and self-confidence, they think they're in control of their fate." Dr. Farley describes these adventurous kids as independent thinkers, trying things other kids only wonder about.

As a parent, it's hard to get upset with them because they're full of wonder, intent on exploring their world. Directing their energy, however, is critical to their well-being and yours. “By providing challenges and sanctioned activities, families can help these children learn to take healthy risks instead of engaging in destructive behavior,” says Dr. Farley.

Lessons Learned

When 11-year-old Randy brought home a dead turtle and wanted his mother to cook it for dinner, his mother Annie could have refused. Instead Annie said, "What if this turtle died from eating a poisonous plant? What if we cut it up, but didn't know which parts were poisonous and we ate the wrong part?" Randy decided the risk wasn't worth it and put the turtle back where he found it.

When James Riordan of Kankakee, Illinois, saw that his toddler, Jeremiah, loved to climb into the fireplace "to see where it went," as Jeremiah explained, James set out to balance his inquisitiveness with a regard for his own safety. When Jeremiah was old enough to understand, his father began telling Jeremiah stories and reading him newspaper accounts. "I had a buddy who fell and drowned walking along the underside of a bridge," says James. "I asked Jeremiah, 'Why do you think he was on the bridge? Trying to impress friends?'"

Dr. Grotberg likes the story approach because it impersonalizes the setting and keeps parents from lecturing. She suggests talking about movies together, asking what impulsive characters could have done to prevent tragedies. She also recommends teaching kids to ask themselves questions such as:

  • Do I have the skills?
  • What makes me want to do this? To prove myself?
  • Could this hurt someone else?
  • If I fail, am I willing to take the consequences?

Get Up and Go

Parents can do a great deal to help satisfy a thrill-seeking kid’s need for new and stimulating experiences.

Parents can help satisfy a thrill-seeking kid's need for new and stimulating experiences with the following.

Make family fun active. Provide structured, sensible challenges. "These kids have excitement needs, so for vacation, go backpacking instead of vegging out and reading," says Farley. "Adventure activities such as mountain climbing teach kids to cooperate, solve problems and make wise decisions," says David Bates, Director of Boy Scout Camping and Conservation in Irving, Texas. "Kids who are thrill-seekers need these skills more intensely."

Encourage fast-paced sports. These kids often prefer quick-moving, body contact sports such as hockey or lacrosse instead of baseball.

Pursue their interests, Sixteen-year-old Courtney LaPerriere of Granger, Indiana, always loved animals so her mother, Terri, taught her how to handle and care for them. Courtney has her own horse and has gotten hurt riding in rodeos. "I could have restricted her, but this is Courtney," says Terri. "She loves animals."

Safety First

“Parents may want to lay down the law, but a lot of rules don't work well with these kids,” says Farley. Here are some alternatives to repeatedly saying, "no."

Set limits. When her son, Randy, was planning to spray cars with shaving cream on Halloween, Annie explained, "This may be fun, but the shaving cream discolors the car. Why don't you spray the shaving cream on a tree or build a shaving cream snowman on the grass?"

Limit access. "Parents must control access to weaponry, medications, family vehicles and anything where thrill-seeking can go wrong," says Patrick Friman, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist with Boys Town in Omaha. "Do you live near a bridge or a river? Don't allow unsupervised access to these things, but provide as much controlled access as possible."

Require skill-building. Say, "not now," instead of, "no." At age 3, Alexander Westphal of Bend, Oregon, wanted to dive off the high diving board, but his mother Cynthia told him he had to learn how to swim across the pool first, which he did. It was a logical test because after he dived, he needed to swim to the ladder to get out.

Come up with safer alternatives. "Ask yourself," says Annie Cornelius of Royce City, Texas, "What will this child do -- besides the normal thing? At five, Randy wanted a tree house, but because he might fall, we let him build a dugout fort instead. He dug a 3-foot hole and put plywood and dirt across the top."

Becoming Wise Risk-Takers

Sometimes kids don't realize that damage can be permanent, says Annie Cornelius. When Randy was planning to spray cars with shaving cream on Halloween, Think through scenarios in advance. When Courtney LaPerriere wanted to ride bulls in the rodeo, Terri reminded her that bull riders often break their ribs. "Then you won't be able to work at the
barn," Terri said to her, "which is how you pay board for your horse. What will you do then?" Courtney decided she didn't want to risk losing her horse to ride bulls.

Include kids in the thought processes of decision making, says Wendy Distler of Lake Forest, California. During a rock climbing adventure, her husband Joe, president of Orange County (California) Search and Rescue, discussed risks with his daughter, Lena's 4-H group as he trained them to rappel. "We listened to everyone's experiences about hooking into something they thought was sturdy, but it wasn't -- large trees with a minimal root base or large rocks with small rocks under them that acted as ball bearings. Then we made a group decision about what to hook into."

Discuss refusal skills. When your kid's friends dare them to do stunts, they need face-saving ways to say no. Cynthia Westphal taught Alexander to blame her, saying, My Mom is probably watching, so I can't. Says Cynthia, "We've talked about what to do if his friend wants to play with matches. Would he tell an adult? What if the friend called him names -- would he give in?" Rehearsing these scenes prepares kids to know what to say in the heat of a dare.

Older kids can use humor ("I don't want to look like street pizza") as a refusal skill, says Grotberg. "Or they can walk away or use the broken record approach, No, no, no. They can change the subject, 'Let's go to the park,' or enlist help from kids who might agree: 'You're not going to do that, are you?'"

Thrill-seeking kids are less likely to participate in daredevil stunts when they have a sense of family belonging, says Friman. "Kids need affirmation for times they do show good judgment and for their success in appropriate thrill-seeking activities." But what if you're a terrified mom like me? Says Wendy Distler, who doesn't climb rocks and rappel as Lena does, "I like hearing about it -- I enjoy Lena's enjoyment. You receive a lot of joy when your child finds that which excites her."


Sidebar: Brain Teasers

Some kids are mental thrill-seekers, needing new and unexpected ideas to consider. "They challenge teachers and often run afoul of school rules," says Frank Farley, psychologist at Temple University. "Many creative people such as Picasso and Churchill didn't do well in school for this reason." Here are some ways to cope:

Interact with teachers. "Parents need to find the right match between child and teacher," says Michael Russell, a school psychologist who does evaluations for the New York City Board of Education. "With these kids, a less rigid teacher that doesn't insist on perfect attention may work better."

Each year, Jim Riordan talks to Jeremiah's teachers: "I tell them he gets bored easily and can seem pushy at times. I explain that teachers usually end up liking him because he goes the extra mile. For example, once a teacher asked him to write a thank you letter to a guest speaker, and he did it."

Use a home computer. Mental thrill-seekers often love computers because they have so many options -- education, entertainment, communicating with other kids. Kids can work independently and change the video, audio and text to suit themselves.


SIDEBAR: Let Off Steam

Some programs can help harness a child’s wild side.

  • The Guide to ACA Accredited Camps (1997-98 edition) is published by the American Camping Association and lists approved camps and their activities for both children and families. To order the book, which costs $16.95, call 800-428-CAMP or contact ACA at: http://www.aca-camps.org.
  • Explorers is a co-ed program for youth 16-21. Posts focus on one interest area such as firefighting, sea exploring, outdoor adventure, camping, hiking, canoeing, mountaineering, aviation or search and rescue. Look in the white pages of your telephone book under Boy Scouts of America and your local council can put you in touch with an explorer post that fits your teen's interests and location.
  • 4-H Clubs involve urban, suburban and rural boys and girls age 5-19. Clubs can specialize in anything kids are interested in -- skiing, mountain climbing, canoeing, sailing or developing computer web sites. Contact 4-H by calling Cooperative Extension System (CES) listed in the blue government pages of your telephone book or under 4-H in the white pages.
  • Your local fire department may have information about youth firefighting training programs. Contact the training officer.


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