As Erica Butler pushed her son on a swing at the park, he kept asking to go higher. "When Nolan was about as high as the swing could go, he leaped off," says the mom from Bellingham, Washington. "I ran over to see if he was okay, but he just jumped up and asked to do it again."
That's normal behavior for preschoolers because they're testing limits, says Tammy Gold, a therapist in Short Hills, New Jersey. Follow these strategies to prevent bold moves from becoming hazardous to your child's health -- and your sanity -- without squelching his budding independence.
Lead the Way
Rather than shielding your über-adventurer from every possible danger, help her learn how to navigate potentially precarious situations. "Teach her to stop at driveways and street corners, looking both ways to make sure no cars are coming, and to approach a dog only if its tail is wagging and she asks the owner first," says Parents advisor Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. "Have her repeat the rules back to you." Resist the urge to rescue her at every turn too. As Devon Mantucca, of Laguna Niguel, California, recalls: "When my daughter Sophia was 3 and already climbing the tallest tree at the park, I walked her through the steps of getting back down carefully and she gradually got the hang of it." Pint-size superheroes may also benefit from taking classes, such as gymnastics and karate, that allow them to safely push their physical limits.
You may not want to hover, but you'll almost always have to keep your fearless preschooler near you, especially if he's 3. If you're at a pool, for instance, you obviously want to supervise constantly anyway. If he wants to try climbing on monkey bars, you're going to need to catch him when he drops down. "Even when he's walking on the sidewalk or you're out at a store, tell him to stay where you can see each other," says Gold. "When he's nearly 5, you should be able to watch him from more of a distance in certain situations."
Set Appropriate Limits
Wherever you go, make sure your child knows the rules. For instance, tell her that she can climb on the jungle gym but not up (and over!) fences. Involve her in the process when possible, adds Dr. Mogel. "Look around and ask if the swings or slides, for example, look like safe, fun places to play," she says. With certain activities, such as sledding or riding a bike, set expectations about always wearing protective gear and not going down steep hills. "I want my children to take risks, but calculated risks, and to understand the potential consequences," says Mantucca. "I'm always saying, 'If you get hurt, we will have to go to the doctor' so they learn to be careful and purposeful in their choices."
Get the Balance Right
Above all, try not to get angry if your child puts himself in danger without realizing it. "Unless you've specifically said, 'Do not climb this tree because it's dangerous,' you shouldn't yell at him for trying it out," says Gold. "That just confuses him because he hasn't yet learned or been told what's unsafe -- and he doesn't know he's doing anything wrong." However, if you tell him not to run on a hard, slippery surface and he tries it anyway, give him one warning. "If he does it again, remove him from the situation and leave, or give him a time-out," says Gold. This way, your child won't lose his enthusiasm for adventure but he's ultimately learning appropriate boundaries.
Watch for Warning Signs
If your child is aggressive, violent, or reckless to the point where it results in frequent emergency-room visits or discipline, talk to her pediatrician. He'll be able to help you distinguish whether your child is simply testing normal limits or if there's something more going on. "Some children are temperamentally less sensitive to physical or emotional pain, be it their own injuries or the hurt, sadness, or shame their actions cause in others," says Dr. Mogel. "This can lead to problematic behavior because they're missing cues about appropriately protecting themselves and the people around them."
Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Parents magazine.