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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.

The only way children can increase their skills is through performing at the edge of their abilities. There’s not much risk of bodily harm in reading or playing video games at a level of personal challenge. But pushing strength and coordination to their limits can have dangerous effects. How can you keep your kids safe when they dare to test the boundaries of their physical skills?

Dare Devils come in two varieties, it seems: the Over-Unders and the Totally Clueless. Each requires different guidance from mom and dad.

Dare Devil kids who are Totally Clueless just don’t see any cause for worry. They are like toddlers who climb onto window ledges. Climbing is just what they do and they have no notion of heights, gravity, or how to maintain balance. We understand this in toddlers and preschoolers but some children remain Totally Clueless long after one might think they’d become more aware. These kids might have attention difficulties in other areas or they just might not have had much relevant experience. The city kid and the child with ADHD who both wander close behind a horse are equally clueless about the dangers of being stepped on or kicked.

The parent of a Totally Clueless child – whether this is due to age, attention issues, or lack of experience – has a responsibility to be proactive in keeping the child safe. This means, of course, that we have to be aware of the dangers ourselves. We have to be willing to learn from more experienced people ourselves, instead of just blundering forward without a clue. The city parent who takes the family on a visit to the farm but doesn’t pay attention to a child’s proximity to large animals is complicit in any injuries the child sustains when she discovers that cows can bite. We have to stay alert when our children enter into new territory because even clever kids may be Totally Clueless in unfamiliar fields.

Dare Devil kids who over-estimate their own abilities or under-estimate the dangers of a situation (or both!) require more targeted thinking. These Over-Unders are wonderfully confident  and many of them don’t take kindly to being told to downsize their assessment of a situation. These are the children who jump off cliffs into lakes, imagining that no rocks lie under the water in the places they imagine they will land. Their great imaginations show only positives. It’s our sad duty as parents to imagine the negatives for them.

Much of this we do by modeling prudence while our kids are still young. You hang around under the monkey bars, ready to “spot” your child when he slips. You check the water for rocks. You let your child know what you’re doing, because that reinforces both the danger and the necessary care.

Then, as your child gets older and as specific situations come up, you point out the possible risks and help to find ways to minimize those dangers. The child who is inspired by Olympic coverage to try gymnastics in the back yard sees only the fun of flying around and not the training, the preparation, or the safety equipment. Your teen who’s planning a back country camping trip with her friends imagines only the cozy camp fire, not the snakes or the lightning storms. You’ve got to find ways to preserve the fun while ensuring your child doesn’t land in the ER. The best way to do this, often, is to link your kid up to a class in whatever area he is overconfident of his abilities and under aware of the dangers. A day’s class in gymnastics or white water rafting will impress upon your child the need for care and preparation better than you can do. Or put into her hands a how-to book or link her up with an expert.

One of the burdens of parenting is being able to imagine danger around every corner. It’s important that we keep our own risk-assessment reasonable and not limit our children’s experiences to only what is safe. Doing that limits our children’s abilities. As we’ve seen, being Totally Clueless is no help.

But at the same time we have to remember that children don’t know what they haven’t tried. When they do try, we’ve got to keep their eyes open. We want them to survive the experience.

All kids should be dare devils, trying new things. We’ve got to keep our Dare Devils safe.


© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.