When it comes to taking risks, I've concluded there are two kinds of children: Those who are risk-averse and those who join in the dance contest at the beach resort to win a T-shirt.
I realized this recently while on spring break. There I was, enjoying the late-afternoon sun, absorbing the relaxation transmitted through the jets in the hot tub, when my son (a non-risk-taker) called me urgently.
“Mom, come quick, Amy is dancing.”
Amy is an 8-year-old whose personal hero is Raven Symone, the hippest girl on the Disney channel. That Amy was dancing was not news certainly not enough to get me out of the hot tub.
“What's the big deal?” I asked, squinting up at him.
“Look,” he said, pointing toward the crowd at the far end of the pool patio.
That's when I saw her not just dancing, but shaking her “groove thang” for an audience of at least 50 people attending the resort's complimentary cocktail party. Included in the festivities were games and contests, and Amy was the sole entrant in the dance competition.
Apparently, knowing she would win, she had decided to give the steel drummer a workout.
When the song ended and the rousing applause finally died down, I let Amy know how impressed I was that she had volunteered to dance.
“I was the only one who participated,” she said, somewhat disappointed.
“Some people just aren't brave like you are,” I said.
And that's the truth.
I don't know if a willingness to take risks is the result of nature or nurture. I suspect it has to do with birth order or some other child-development theory such as the length of labor and delivery, or perhaps the age when toilet training is complete.
Maybe it's just a fluke of personality.
However it happens, I have two children who view the world as a fascinating place to be explored and exploited and two who would prefer it if life didn't force them to speak with any person they have not already met.
It's not that my risk avoiders, Katie and Jimmy, aren't open to adventure. It's just that any adventure that involves asking someone for directions or being noticed by passers-by is simply too risky.
Dancing for strangers at a resort? No way.
On the other hand, I sometimes think Betsy and Amy go looking for situations that indulge their propensity to take risks. This is why Amy has performed the “sprinkler” dance move in public and Betsy spent a good portion of our spring break looking dreamily up to the sky at hang gliders. (I said no, of course.)
As a parent, I spend half my time reminding two of my children that they need to be careful and the other half chiding the other two about being too cautious. It's important to keep track, lest I give the wrong lecture.
Oddly enough, it's a lot easier to talk an adventurous child into calculating the potential danger of her plans than it is to encourage the less risky children to take a chance.
Case in point: Jimmy watched longingly as a boy kicked around a soccer ball on the beach. Never mind that Jimmy hadn't put hand or foot to a ball of any variety for a good five days (the withdrawal was evident) or that the boy looked to be about his age or that the boy looked eager to kick the ball with someone rather than practice dribbling on his own.
There was a chance he didn't speak English, and Jimmy wasn't about to find out.
“You don't need to speak the same language to kick a soccer ball,” my husband said.
Nothing doing. Jimmy doesn't risk making a new friend if he's uncertain how it will go, and too much information was missing for him to go out on a limb.
It's a struggle getting someone like Jimmy to dare something different, even if it might result in a good time.
What worries me is that the risk-averse contingent among my brood will persuade my risk takers to hem themselves in unnecessarily. It's a trend I saw on vacation when the waiter brought the calamari to the table.
“Are those 'O' rings, Mom?” Amy asked.
“Ummm…yep,” I said, flashing my husband a mischievous glance.
I passed her a crunchy, golden circle dipped in tangy sauce, and she bit down greedily. “Yum,” she said, reaching for another.
Just then, Jimmy who would rather eat Kleenex than calamari started humming the “SpongeBob SquarePants” theme song. There were snickers all around, and someone imitated the voice of Squidward, the squid.
Katie said, “Later we'll tell you what you're eating.”
“What is it?” Amy asked, panic washing over her face.
Finally, she put it all together. The song, the giggles around the table, the not-so-veiled references to squid.
She did what any 8-year-old risk taker would do under the circumstances. She burst into tears.
“Thanks a lot, you guys,” she cried.
Of course, she refused to eat any more calamari, even though she liked it.
I was sorry they had teased her into thinking the squid was off limits.
Then again, I'm not too concerned that Amy's adventurous spirit will be quelled too quickly. After all, her older brother and sister may prefer to live on the safe side, but Amy's the one with the new T-shirt.
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 18 years and mother of four children from third grade to junior year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)