My daughter is physically cautious. This makes life very easy on me, but it's not something I'm completely happy about.
It started when Sammy was about 10 months old. She never crawled, but just scooted around on her bottom. Then she didn't walk until she was 17 months old, but when she finally did, she had it all figured out in one day. She could stop and stand still, carry objects, turn corners, and avoid walking into objects in her path. She was also mature enough by that time that she didn't throw herself all over the place, but just walked carefully to where she wanted to go. I never had to go through that stage that everyone complains about with toddlers, where you're just chasing them around all day long stopping them from killing themselves. Sam almost never put herself in danger. It was easy for me, but being risk-adverse is not something I want to encourage in her.
This slow physical development has continued and it seems to be part and parcel of her cautious nature. Sam is definitely not a fearful child, but when she enters a new place (especially one with many people or a loud place) she will stop, look, and listen for quite a while before joining in whatever the activity happens to be. It seems as if she doesn't want to try physical activities until she somehow knows she can master them. We bought her a bike a year ago and she's hardly practiced at all, despite our gentle encouragement. When she tries something and fails, her pattern is to get frustrated and retreat - not to try again. I can't imagine how anything we've done could have encouraged this - I'm pretty sure it is just part of her temperament. But the combination of caution and lack of persistence is going to cause her problems down the road.
(Aside: Jenn Casey and Kelly Elmore have a good podcast on temperament which you can listen to here. While I agree somewhat with their, and Positive Discipline's, position on temperament, I do have differences. Jenn and Kelly mention persistence as a temperamental trait, meaning that some children are just born more persistent than others. I believe that some tendency towards persistence may be temperamental, but I don't believe that it is a neutral character trait. It is a virtue, and like other virtues, it may come more easily to some than others, but either way, it must be something parents actively work to foster in their children.)
Sam's caution and her lack of persistence seem related to me. They both imply a kind of perfectionism, or even a fear of failure. I don't know that a child can have those attitudes, but there must be some childlike equivalent in the way that they approach the universe. Whether she was born with it or somehow developed it as an infant, she needs to learn another way.
Adam and I knew that the solution for this was to give Sam as many opportunities to try new things as possible, especially physical activities. Inevitably, she would have some successes, and this would hopefully teach her that effort would bring her the value of achievement. More experience would also help her learn that failure is not something to be feared, but a fact of life that you can learn from. Unfortunately, Adam and I aren't very physical people ourselves, so this didn't come naturally. Direct encouragement hadn't been very successful for us either, and we would never force her to engage in an activity she was not comfortable with (like throwing her into a pool to get her to go underwater). We did try using peer-pressure by trying to point out how much fun her friend was having riding her bike. This was a dangerous, second-handed path though. I mean, it was worth a try because you can legitimately learn from others this way, but it's not something we would want to make a habit of. To Sam's credit, it didn't work anyway.
So we decided to enroll her in one of those kind of "gym" classes for little kids. (You know, like Gymboree, Little Gym, or JW Tumbles.) I'm not a fan of signing toddlers and preschoolers up for a lot of these kinds of activities - I think a lot of it is expensive nonsense - but we had a specific purpose in mind here. I had a coupon for Tumbles, so that's where she went.
At her first class, Sam hardly participated. First off, she didn’t want to go into the play area without me. This is where I have to walk the fine line of respecting her nature and yet not accepting it uncritically. I told her that I was not allowed to join the group – that it was just for children – but that I would come into the play area and sit where she could see me. All the other parents sat in the adjacent waiting area, but I sat on the floor in the gym. Sam came over to me quite a few times that first class, but always went back to the group of her own free will after a moment of comfort.
During "circle time" she did not do any of the physical activities such as touching her toes or wiggling her hips. She just stood and watched as the other children mimicked the “trainers.” The trainers would also have the kids repeat cheers and yell out answers to questions and such, but Sam never opened her mouth. She just listened. This was fine with me. I was just happy she stood in the circle with the others.
Then the trainers would have the kids do structured activities like climbing over a foam "wall" or walking across a balance beam or kicking a ball into a net. These tasks were performed individually – the kids would take turns and get whatever help they needed from the trainers. Sam was hesitant about these things, but the trainers were great at gently prompting her without pushing or forcing her. (Trust me, I watched them closely for any disrespect.) Eventually, she tried every single activity, but with hesitation. When she did something wrong, they would cheerfully show her how to do it right, not just let it go. I liked that, too.
There was also time for "free play" on the slides and bars and other fun equipment, and Sam jumped right into that. She did her own thing, totally oblivious to what the other children were doing. She was obviously having fun, but she didn't try anything new. She stuck to the slides, mostly, since that is what she is used to from her playground experience.
Sam went to this class for one and a quarter hours per week for eight weeks. By the end, she was a different child.
She stopped begging me to go into the play area with her, and just ran right in. She threw herself into all of the structured activities and couldn't wait for her turn. She learned how to climb a ladder (something she would not even try on the first day), to swing from her arms from a bar and jump down, to cross a balance beam, to kick a ball (although very badly), and many other things. She even got to go down a mini zip-line!
During free play, she interacted with the other children much more, and tried every piece of equipment at least once. The only area where you could still see a big difference between her and the other children was in circle time. She did make some progress. She would mimic the trainers' actions some of the time, but only when it was something she had seen them do quite a bit. She smiled some of the time, but still spent a good amount of time looking totally spaced out with her hand in her mouth (her comfort pose). And she never ever joined in the verbal cheers and interactions. I don’t think that is important at all, and it might even just be a preference of hers.
The important thing is that this environment somehow encouraged her to try new things and to keep working on them. She still never did anything truly daring, but she didn’t seem light-years behind the others. And also, she loved it! She loved it so much that we're having her birthday party there.
Sam is still a cautious child. She still needs to spend about 20 minutes in any new, overwhelming environment before she gets comfortable. She still hates loud or crowded places. But I don’t think any of those things are problematic. In fact, as long as I see her putting effort into things and persisting, I think her caution is a good thing. I think she has turned a corner with her perfectionism, or whatever it is. Now she seems more willing to try new physical activities, but at a slow, cautious pace. She hasn’t totally rejected much of anything, lately. She was fearless on our farm vacation. I don’t know that she would have ridden the miniature horse before she went to Tumbles. This past weekend, we went to the county fair and she rode her first roller coaster. I knew she would like it if only she would try it, and try it she did! We’ll just keep putting these options in front of her as often as possible, and hope that she learns from experience, that experience is how you learn.