What parent hasn’t uttered “be careful?” I certainly have, but a post by the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada about why telling kids to “be careful” is not the best way to keep them safe inspired me to try a different tack.
“Be careful” may as well be the official motto of parenting in summer, when kids seem determined to injure themselves but need independent activities more than ever. Add in the stress of a scary pandemic, when kids’ social distancing is both necessary and feels impossible to enforce without yelling “be careful!” every time our kids get too close to another person or take off a mask. It’s no wonder it’s a hard habit to break.
Why not use “be careful”? First, if you repeat it too often, it loses its impact. Second, when you say, “be careful,” you do not help a child learn anything about the risk in the given situation, never mind how to manage that risk. If you can be a bit more specific, it is both more likely that your child will be safer in the moment, and that he or she can learn about how to manage a situation in the future.
Kids also like to play in ways that are both wonderfully beneficial and inherently dangerous. My favorite is what Wired magazine’s GeekDad and I both agree is the #1 toy of all time—sticks. Often a “be careful” really means “put that stick down.” What a loss! Sticks are so versatile and playing with them supports imagination, gross and fine motor skills, creativity, problem-solving skills, and more. Let’s not put the sticks away; let’s help kids learn to give sticks and each other the space they need to be safe (try this with social distancing, too, using the “lobster walk” as a way to keep kids six feet from others!).
Perhaps my favorite reason, though, is that there is a negative impact of using fear-inducing language with kids. This video and with the post, really make this point click. When we give commands for kids to “be careful,” “don’t fall!” or even “stop!” our alert is loaded with a warning and focuses on the danger––rather than reminding kids of their capacity to manage the situation. Our minds do not process negative information easily, and kids respond to this negative information with fear. Fear tends to make all of us freeze—but that is not what kids need to do in most risky play situations. Rather than build resilience, this kind of experience could make kids both unsafe in the moment and more reluctant to try in the future.
To get started breaking the habit, enlist the help of your family. You may find that your kids will love being the “be careful!” police. And you’ll find yourself using a whole new vocabulary.
A few short phrases have been extra helpful for me (I even say “be careful” to my husband!). Here are some favorites:
When kids are climbing or navigating uneven terrain, remind them to fully engage and/or help them recognize if they need help:
- “Strong steps.”
- “Take your time.”
- “Wow, nice climbing with hands and feet” or “Lovebug, hands and feet can make climbing steady.”
- “How are you feeling on those rocks?”
- “Are you feeling safe?”
- “Let me know if you want some teamwork.”
When kids have play objects that could hurt someone else, do not block their brain- and spirit-building play, but help them use the objects safely:
- “Sticks (or rocks) need space, can you move a bit so your stick has plenty of space?” (I LOVE this)
- “Wait; let’s tell our friends to watch out and wait before you throw that rock.”
- “Which direction should you throw that/wave that so other friends are safe?”
- “1, 2, 3…throw!”
When your partner heads out on a bike ride on winding roads:
- “Strong pedals, honey!” (Then just hope for the best!)