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Be Careful About Saying “Be Careful!”

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


We’ve had lots of out-of-town company at our house these past two weeks, with children and aunts and all engaged in lots of activities. The Number One phrase that seemed to come out of people’s mouths the easiest was “Be careful!” That got me to thinking. Is “be careful!” the best thing to say?

Of course our motives are good. We see the potential for injury or breakage and a warning seems in order. But “be careful!” often doesn’t do what we intend. “Be careful!”  – when it does anything at all – seems confusing. That can’t be good.

First of all, “be careful!” isn’t very specific. If there’s a real danger, it makes sense to spell it out. “Be careful with that knife because it’s very sharp” not only gives a warning but tells what action the warning is about and why. But we often don’t say what a child should be careful about. We aren’t very clear.

Second, “be careful!” isn’t very instructive. It tells that there’s danger ahead but not how to avoid it. It would be better to say, “Be careful with that vase. It would be good to hold it with two hands.” This provides a pause in the action that gives a child time to reconsider the possible outcomes but also suggests a way to avoid disaster.

Third, “be careful!” limits a child’s actions. An active child is a learning child but “be careful!” cuts off learning. When our warning makes a child stop and wait for a grownup to do things for her, or makes a child stop and not try at all, then our warning keeps a child, not just safe, but little. Competence and confidence come from doing things. We have to let kids do.

This is the very reason why our “be careful!” often is ignored. Children want to expand their abilities. They are eager to try new things and become more capable today than they were last week. So even though we whine, “be careful!” kids laugh and do things anyway. “Be careful!” when it’s said over and over about even trivial actions loses its punch.

I’ve said that it helps to add to “be careful!” either what a child should be careful about or how to take care with whatever he’s doing. In addition, it helps to ask a child, “what can you do to stay safe?” or “what can you do to keep that safe?”  Asking a child to stop and consider both the danger inherent in an action and what he can do to be proactive in keeping himself or others safe does two good things: it signals our confidence in his ability to be safe and it inspires him to be responsible about planning for safety. Confidence coupled with responsibility is what we really want, isn’t it?

If you find yourself overusing the phrase “be careful!” try being more supportive of your child’s desire to become responsible and confident. See if your child becomes – instead of more reckless – more safe.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.
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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.