“Be Careful” No More – What to Say Instead

Child throwing sand in the air

It’s happened to the best of us– your child is climbing up a slippery jungle gym, or jumping on a trampoline, or carrying a full glass of water, and without even thinking about it, the words just tumble out of your mouth: “Be careful!”

Be careful. It may be one of the most common phrases in parenting. It’s applicable to so many circumstances, and it’s likely something our own parents told us countless times growing up. Unfortunately, it can become so overused that it becomes virtually meaningless to the very children we’re trying to protect.  

What do we actually mean when we tell our children to be careful? Well obviously, we mean there may be a precarious situation unfolding. But even deeper than that is the message that motivates us:

  • “I want you to be safe.”
  • “I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
  • “You are precious to me.”
  • “I love you so much.”

But it’s entirely possible that our kids are receiving a different kind of message, a message none of us intend:

  • “I think you’re at risk but I’m not sure you realize it.”
  • “I don’t believe you’re capable of assessing the situation you’re in.”
  • “Playing like this is a bad thing.”
  • “You can’t do this.”
  • “I don’t trust you.” 

There’s an important early childhood concept that is sometimes called appropriate or positive risk taking.

The Benefits of Positive Risk Taking

Research shows that children actually need risk to grow into well-rounded, emotionally-balanced, capable adults. When children are able to overcome the fear and anxiety associated with risk, they develop stronger emotional “muscles” and are better able to manage their feelings in the future. By supporting reasonable risk-taking, parents help their children learn to assess situations and develop problem-solving skills. Adults can actually cultivate confidence and an appropriate understanding of boundaries by encouraging their children to take risks that are appropriate to their capabilities. It may feel counterintuitive to some families, especially in the age of helicopter parenting, but the more we allow children to explore and challenge themselves, the less inclined they are to engage in hazardous play patterns. The more organic and appropriate risk children are exposed to, the less inappropriate risk they feel compelled to create for themselves.

So when we unthinkingly admonish our children to be careful, we may be subtly communicating that risk is a negative thing. We may be telling them it’s better to sit on the sidelines rather than gambling a fall or a broken vase. We may be inadvertently indicating that curiosity, independent exploration, problem-solving, the accomplishment of a challenging task—all the incredible things that make childhood so magical—just aren’t worth the risk involved.

Help Your Children Feel Capable of New Things

And, more troubling, we may be indicating that we don’t trust that they’re actually capable of what they’re attempting to do. Children are much wiser than we often give them credit for; typically a child will not enter intentionally into a dangerous situation. They generally understand their limits. While they may seek to push themselves a bit, if we trust them, most children are able to choose risk that is appropriate to their capabilities.

Of course, none of us want our children to get hurt. That’s why it’s up to us, as caretakers, to assess appropriate risk and to help our kiddos learn to make those assessments, too. There are times when we know, as adults, that something may be unmanageable for our children, or that they may need our support.

Communicating that You Support  Your Child

But there are different ways to communicate that support—and to help children assess their surroundings—without undermining their independence and capabilities. Most of those approaches are situation-specific: that is, rather than using something as nebulous as the blanket phrase “be careful,” it is more effective to cite the particular circumstances your child is in. They also emphasize the child’s thought process rather than the adult’s, which allows kids to think through their course of action and what the consequences of one path may be versus the consequences of another. Most importantly, these approaches straddle the line between providing support and allowing independence; they value the child’s ability to move, and think, and assess, while indicating a way out should it be necessary. Phrases like “I’m here if you need me” and “Just let me know if you’d like me to help” go a long way in encouraging children as they work through a challenging situation.

Petra Eperjesi of the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada has a fantastic list of go-to phrases for when a child is engaged in risky play.

Go-To Phrases to Encourage Postive Risk-Taking

  • “Stay focused on what you’re doing.”
  • “Do you feel safe there?”
  • “Take your time.”
  • “I’m here if you need me.”
  • “Should we move this game to a more open area?”
  • “Sticks need space. Sarah, look around you – do you have enough space to swing that big stick?”
  • “What’s your plan with that big stick?”
  • “Find more space!”
  • “That rock looks really heavy! Can you manage it?”
  • “Please give each other lots of space so that no one feels like they need to push, and no one gets knocked over by accident.”
  • “Do you feel stable/balanced?”
  • “Do you need more space?”
  • “Check in with each other. Make sure everyone is still having a good time.”
  • “Ask him if he’s still having fun.”
  • “Did you like that? Make sure you tell her if you didn’t like that.”

These phrases may feel different and they may take practice, but they are so valuable in helping your child grow. So, the next time your child is feeling daring, why not dare yourself to say something new? Maybe your confidence and support will be just what your kiddo needs to start off on a brand new adventure.

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One Response to “Be Careful” No More – What to Say Instead

  1. Jill July 2, 2018 at 8:42 pm #

    You said, “research shows…” and then provided no location for that research. Where exactly did it show your claims?

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