Stop Telling Kids to “Be Careful” (and What to Say Instead)
If you’ve ever watched your insecure kids climb a high – very high – rope structure in a playground, or climb a big, rickety log in the woods, or try to ride monkey bars for the first time (at breakneck speed), you might felt compelled to shout, “Be careful!” And why? Because on the playgrounds they break their hands, and no one wants to go to the hospital. And probably because you heard a lot about it when you were growing up.
But there are several reasons why this oft-repeated parental exhortation can do more harm than good. (And some of the best ways to help your kids raise risk awareness and be safe.) Here’s why you should stay away from this common phrase and what you can say instead.
Why the words “be careful” are ineffective
It’s not specific enough . The persistently pronounced “Be careful!” can mean anything from “Watch out for the tree branch ” or “You’ve got a tarantula on your head!” When we say “be careful,” our kids often don’t even know what to be careful about .
This is abuse. Because “be careful” is such an ingrained, reflex phrase, we often say it in situations both large and small. We say this when they are about to jump off the wall and when they are just getting out of the tub. But often spoken indescribable phrases lose their meaning over time and are usually ignored.
This instills fear . How often do we say “be careful” because we are afraid? To be honest, the urge to say this usually comes from our own anxiety, which we then unnecessarily pass on to our children. While children need to be aware of situational and physical risks, teaching them a fear of play and other daily activities can, over time, cause resistance to trying new things and a lack of self-confidence.
This hinders their development . Studies have shown that “imposing too much restrictions on children’s risky outdoor play hinders their development”. And this study found that increasing opportunities for nature walks and risk-taking games increased self-confidence, self-regulation, and creativity, and actually reduced the risk of injury.
If we constantly interfere, our children are deprived of the ability to independently calculate and manage risks – an essential life skill. The more we train them to rely on external sources to warn them of danger, the less likely they will be to trust their own skills and instincts and take on challenges in the future.
What to say instead
Of course, as parents, we want to prevent injury, and children, little known for their prudent decisions, need guidance. So, how can we constructively encourage them to develop situational awareness, risk assessment, and problem solving without causing them undue fear?
Our first step as caregivers is to notice and stop the habit of saying “be careful” every time we smell danger to our children. Ask yourself, is there a risk of serious harm right now? If not, resist the urge to throw caution and try one of these instead:
” Pay attention to how…/You see… ” Teach your child to be more aware of his surroundings in situations of his own safety without telling him what to do. For example: Pay attention to how slippery this stone is. Notice how deep the water is. See that broken step? Do you see the way down? Do you see that wasp over there?
“You feel…?” Have your child check their emotional and physical experiences by pausing and assessing what’s going on underneath the surface (a skill many adults are still learning). Do you feel safe? Do you feel stable on this thread? Are you feeling tired? Can you feel how hot the stove is?
– What is your next step? Give the children the opportunity to solve problems and make their own plan of action. If they’re climbing high, walking to an edge, or need to cross a fast-moving stream, instead of immediately offering a solution, ask, “What’s your next step?” or What do you think you should do next?
“Try…” When your children seem unsure and ask for help, instead of giving them answers right away (unless they are in danger), encourage them to “try” different things. Try using your hands. Try moving your legs slowly. Try going sideways.
Who/What/Where/How: Encourage your children to think about possibilities, next steps, logical consequences, and resources available to them with who/what/where/how questions. Who will go with you? What are you going to do with this stick? Where will you put your backpack? How will you get down?
“Remember…” Simply encouraging children to remember their environment, the properties of the dangerous objects they like to hold, and any potential negative consequences can go a long way in keeping them (and those around them) safe. Remember, stones are heavy and can injure people. Remember sticks are sharp and require a lot of space. Remember, not everyone likes to swing that high .
“I’m here if you need me. One of the best things we can do for our children—again, when there is no immediate danger of serious physical harm—is to just shut up. As hard as it is to watch them take risks, they need time and space to learn how to deal with life’s challenges on their own. Sometimes the best parenting is to say “I’m here if you need me” and then get out of the way.