By Sandy Kauten
EARLY YEARS 1-5
Helping children learn to try new things often begins at the table, where they can experience new tastes and textures daily. But encouraging dietary variety can be a struggle. According to Colorado State University food and nutrition researchers, preschoolers often go through a stage of neophobia, or fear of new things—namely, new foods. Don’t give up too soon: In one study, parents offered babies a new food every day for eight days straight and found that by day eight, the baby was consuming three times as much as on the first day.
The Colorado State University researchers confirmed that toddlers and preschoolers may reject a food up to a dozen times before giving it a try. And remember that for little ones, visual appeal is key, says Jennifer Eiseman, co-founder of Modern Table Meals. “Presentation is everything! Introduce new foods with things your kids already love. It also doesn’t hurt to put everything on a fun plate, too!”
ELEMENTARY YEARS 6-12
From band to soccer to coding club, the flurry of extracurricular activities during grade school provides plenty of opportunity to try new things—which can ramp up pressure for kids leery of novel experiences. If your child wants to be a joiner, but ends up on the sidelines, there are ways to help, says Charlotte, North Carolina-based parent educator Tara Egan D.Ed., founder of Charlotte Parent Coaching. “First, indicate that you have an expectation that they will participate in a new activity. Prepare them by speaking in general terms, ‘Honey, I’d like you to pick an after-school activity to try this fall. Some activities that your school offers are volleyball, flag football, technology club, and LEGO club. I’d like you to think about which of those sounds the most fun.’ Consider finding a friend to participate, too.” Finally, Egan says, set the expectations that the child will commit to the activity for at least one session or season. Once the season is over, they can decide whether or not to participate.
TEEN YEARS 13-18
Teens are hard-wired to want to try new things—evolutionary scientists say that teenagers have a heightened appetite for risk that encourages them to spread their wings and eventually leave the nest. But they may lack the frontal-lobe planning and organizing skills to fully think through the risks involved. Egan says that parents can encourage a healthy attitude toward trying new things and taking risks that includes an awareness of healthy and safe limits. “Parents should recognize that teens are going to engage in unsafe behaviors sometimes, despite their best attempts to prevent it,” she says.
Here, knowledge is power. Make sure—never assume—that teens know where you stand on topics like guns, drugs, vaping, sex, and alcohol. And resist the temptation to let teens party unsupervised because “you trust them.” Teens often make poor decisions simply because they have the opportunity, notes Egan. “Many poor decisions are made without forethought or calculation.”
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.