Link copied to clipboard

Does Your Child Ignore Your Warnings?

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

When you see your child about to do something dangerous what do you usually do?

According to a new study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, if you shout “Don’t do that!” or “Be careful!” you’re unlikely to make the kind of impact you think you’re making. You might indeed get the child to stop what he’s doing right now but he may do it later, when he knows you’re not watching.  Your child will not have learned what you know: how to identify a dangerous situation.

Researchers at the University of Iowa asked 63 mothers and their 8- to 10-year-old children to view photographs depicting other kids in situations that varied in their level of possible danger. For example, one picture showed a child climbing onto a countertop and another showed a child swinging a hatchet at a stick of wood. Mothers and children were separately asked to rate the danger of each scenario. The kids were also asked to rate how scared they might be to try what they saw in the photos.

In about a third of the situations, mothers and children rated the level of danger quite differently. The mother-child pairs were asked to come to consensus about a “safety” rating of the activities on which they disagreed. According to researchers, mothers who “encouraged the child to think through the safety of the activity and explained their own ideas about the activity’s safety” were almost always able to convince their children to agree with them.

One technique that was especially effective was pointing out elements in the scenario that made the situation more dangerous. For example, a mother might point out that trying to chop a stick with a hatchet is particularly dangerous because of the closeness of the child’s hand to where the hatchet will land. She might invite her child to suggest another way the child in the picture could steady the stick that will keep her hand out of range of the falling blade.

One other interesting finding was that some children view activities as less inherently scary than other kids do. These risk-taking kids may need even more help to evaluate a situation and to plan ahead to keep themselves safe. According to lead researcher,  Jodie Plumert. “You shouldn’t assume that your child knows why not [to do something], even if it seems obvious to you.”

It’s not enough to keep children safe while we’re there with them, ready to warn them off. It’s not logical to think we can be there with them all the time, ready to be their brains for them. Instead, we’ve got to make it clearer why a situation is dangerous and how to stay safe. Here are some tips:

  1. When your child is in danger, stop her or get her out of danger, of course, but then explain why the situation was dangerous. Just stopping the activity isn’t enough.
  2. Have a conversation. Ask your child what he could do differently to be more safe. Let him think things through and come up with an idea.
  3. Point out dangerous situations as you and your child go through the day and how you handle them to stay safe. If you turn the handle of a pan on the stove so it’s not sticking out where you might hit it, say what you’re doing and why. When you turn a rake tines-down on the lawn so no one will spike themselves on the points, say so and say why.
  4. Congratulate your child on noticing dangers and keeping herself safe.

Naturally, you don’t want your child to see danger in every step. Your point is not to make your child afraid. Your point is to provide your child with practice in seeing possible consequences.

The child who can imagine consequences is a confident child and one you can have confidence in.


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

share this
Follow Us

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.