How to Do Better Than “Be Careful"

by Meghan Fitzgerald

What parent hasn’t uttered “Be careful?” I continue to be thankful for 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. The first time I read it, I thought, “Yes!” But, it didn’t really sink in until last week’s family vacation on the rugged, Maine coastline. Once I had my fearless 2.5-year-old unleashed upon the rocky coast, I got the chance to put this wise advice to immediate and consistent use. It’s made a real impact.

Why not use “Be careful”? There are a few reasons that really stick out to me. First, if you repeat it too often, it loses its impact. Makes total sense. 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 he or she can learn about how to manage a given 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, creativity, problem-solving, 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.

Perhaps my favorite reason, though, is that there is a negative impact of using fear-inducing language with kids. This video, along with the post, really made this point click for me. 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.

So, I fully tried to move away from “Be careful” for our entire week in Maine. On our drive up, I enlisted the help of my family, sharing that Mommy was trying not to say, “Be careful,” and including a bit about why. My five and seven-year-old girls really seemed to understand and became effective “Be careful” police, alerting me gleefully each time I uttered that phrase. It turns out, I say it a lot. And, I even say it to my husband!


The post was full of suggestions, but I found that a few of my own, short phrases were extra helpful, especially with my 2.5-year-old. In fact, the whole family started using these with one another. Here were some of our favorites: 

When kids are climbing or navigating uneven terrain, remind them to fully engage and/or help them recognize if or when they may need help: 

  • “Strong steps, Ivy.”
  • “Take your time.”
  • “Wow, nice climbing with hands and feet, Maeve” 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.” (My 2.5-year-old refuses help as a rule, but is often open to “teamwork”)

When kids have play objects that could hurt someone else, do not block their brain and spirit-building play, but help kids 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 windy, island roads: 

  • Strong pedals, honey. (Then just hope for the best!)