If your child balks at zipping down a slide on his own, thinks ice is too slippery for skating, and bikes go too fast, you may worry that you’ve raised a scaredy-cat. Of course, we all want our kids to wear seat belts and helmets and to show some degree of caution. But we also want to raise children with the confidence to enjoy ordinary acts of derring-do. Not to worry: it is possible to teach kids to take risks safely, sensibly, and without tears.

“It’s really about empowering them,” says Karen Friedland-Brown, M.A., director of the parent education nonprofit Parents Place in Palo Alto, California. “How do we help build their confidence? There’s a process of desensitization.”

By desensitization, she doesn’t mean bullying them into submission. A little coaxing goes a long way. First, suggests Friedland-Brown, acknowledge your child’s fears. While it may seem silly that a 5-year-old is terrified of the same slide younger kids are racing down, your child’s worries are real and deriding them can make matters worse. A simple “yes, that is a tall slide” can work wonders by showing your child you empathize.

Next, take some time to observe – no pressure allowed! You can sit together and watch the other kids climb the ladder and slide down. Let your child see how it’s done and reassure himself that no one’s getting hurt. Then, gently, you can help him envision himself doing the same thing. “Wow, that looks fun! You have such strong legs, you could probably climb the ladder really fast.”

Again, it’s crucial that you don’t push your child and set up a power struggle. As Friedland-Brown says, your job is simply to “communicate confidence that when they’re ready they’ll do it.”

At this point, many kids will be ready to give it a shot on their own. If your child is still wary, break the scary task into smaller and more manageable bits, and feel free to use reverse psychology as necessary.

For example, you might challenge your child just to climb the steps of the slide (“I bet you don’t know how to climb all the way to the top, do you?”) and then let him climb back down. Or, you might ask him to try on ice skates and step onto the ice, promising that he doesn’t have to let go of the rail.

Trying new things is very much like jumping into a cold lake –- some people hold their breath and jump right in, others like to ease themselves in, little by little. So let your child get his feet wet. Odds are that once your little scaredy-cat gets started, he’ll be having too much fun to stop!