Raising the Cautious Child

cautious child

My 3-year-old son is extremely cautious.

I’m not talking, like, hesitantly dipping his toes in the water before entering a wading pool cautious. I’m talking running in the opposite direction SCREAMING at the suggestion of approaching a wading pool cautious.

He does a lot of sitting on the sidelines, avoiding activities most kids go crazy for (slides, bounce houses, ride-on toys, sprinklers…)

If he has not done something before, you can expect resistance to trying it. He’s curious about new things, but he’s more than happy to satisfy that curiosity by watching from a distance.

Now. I know what you’re thinking…

THAT. IS. AWESOME! PLEASE tell me you’re not going to complain about this “problem”!

Sure, in some ways, cautiousness can be nice. It’s true that he rarely gets hurt, and he’s never had a serious injury—compare that to my friend Betsy, whose poor boy was in a spica cast for months. (I would definitely not wish for that awful scenario!)

But since this is parenting we’re talking about, there’s always a flip side.

Like, for example…

–For his 3rd birthday, we bought him a small bike with training wheels. That was 8 months ago, and I think he’s briefly sat on it twice.

–This past summer, our neighbors had a slip ‘n slide party. While the other kids flew down the slide all day, our son played quietly along the edge.

–On a recent Dells trip, he wouldn’t go NEAR the waterslide that 18-month-olds were zipping down (much less the larger one my husband had been so excited to take him down).

–Once, his grandpa bought a cute little tractor, and he wouldn’t even go near it. Meanwhile, his (identically aged) cousin zoomed around the driveway on it for hours.

–When the neighbor boy offered to let him try his motorized car, he literally screamed and ran away.

Here’s the thing.

We love our son deeply, as he is, and this cautiousness quirk is one of the things that makes him that person. So we would never call it an actual “problem.”

We would just like to see him become a bit (or a lot) more adventurous.

Part of the reason is that we know he would love all of these new things, if he could just get past that scary first time. (Case in point: this past summer, to our amazement, he randomly found it in himself to try out a bounce house. And. He. LOVED. It!)

But also: one of the biggest joys of parenthood is watching your kids have fun and discover new things in life. So yes, we selfishly want to see him having more fun.

When you have children (especially when you have your first child) you can’t help coming into it with certain expectations. So when those expectations are thrown on their heads—“wait, my kid is scared of…sprinklers?”—it’s confusing, and a little frustrating.

The first time we got to see our son go down a slide with a smile on his face, his similarly-aged kid friends had been doing it for months (and months and months), and I felt this weird urge to suppress my excitement. To act that like that was completely normal for him. (Why?!)

I’ve always been wary of events with “kid-friendly” activities, knowing that there’s a very real possibility that my son won’t try the majority of them, and that it could end up being a huge waste of time, energy, and money.

Anytime I hear a mom complain about her kid being “fearless,” I feel a little twinge of jealousy. Just a little. We always want what we don’t have, right?

The good news is that we’ve seen huge progress in our cautious kiddo.

In addition to the bounce house victory this summer, he also summoned up the bravery to ride carnival rides for the first time. (And. Loved. Them.) He still doesn’t ride pedal bikes, but he will sit on them and walk around. And he’s surprisingly comfortable around big animals these days.

The lesson I’ve learned through this is something that’s important for all of us moms to remember:

Raise the kid you have.

For me, that means understanding my son and helping him navigate things that are hard for him.

–When he’s about to face something new, my husband and I know we have to talk about it a lot in advance. We describe exactly what will happen and (if it’s a fun thing) how awesome it’ll be, or (if it’s a scary thing—like the dentist) how brave we know he’s going to be. This past summer, we often heard him parroting the phrase “It’s not scary—it’s fun!”

–We also know that we have to be much less pushy than our parenting instincts tell us to be. We try to present new things in a downplayed, zero-pressure way, then step back and let him discover them at his own pace. Which is typically glaaaacial. (Let me tell you…this ain’t easy.)

–Finally, we try to find the right balance between backing off and nudging. There are definitely times when he could benefit from some healthy nudging, and we’re getting better at determining when those times are.

–We love organized preschool. (Peer pressure can be a GREAT thing!)

Our second son is nothing like his brother. He’ll look at me and smile before diving headfirst down the stairs. The other day, I caught him sitting on the floor happily munching a DEAD FLY.

So I think we might get our wild child experience, yet.

And I’m sure I’ll look at him every now and then and think (SILENTLY), “Why can’t you be a little more careful, like your brother?”

Kim grew up in Minnesota, but moved to Madison to attend the UW and fell in love with the city’s spirit and culture. She's married with three sweet kiddos - Mason, Joshua, and Leah. When she’s not racing monster trucks across furniture or pretending to be interested in video games, she’s working on freelance writing projects or teaching strength training classes through her small fitness business, Lioness Fitness. Kim's a food allergy mom, which means she can read a food label like nobody’s business. She's also a sucker for good wine, good sushi, a good book, and ANY beach.


  1. My 3 year old son is like this also. He loves to go new places and see new things, but when it comes to activites he just wants to stand back and watch. We go to the park pretty often, and he still holds on and lays back while he goes down. He rides his scooter like a 90 year old man. Refuses to try and push pedals on a bike. But……he also LOVES being outside doing all these things, just in his way. Like he’s afraid of getting hurt or something. I worry that he isnt having fun, but this made me feel a little better, like he is having fun, just in his way.


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