Moms and dads will do anything to protect their kids and keep them safe from harm. It’s entirely understandable — when you love someone so much, you can get a little paranoid at everything that can hurt that person. Even the sight of your little one running just a bit too fast can make you yell from across the playground, “Be careful!”
Mom and photographer Josée, who has three children and runs the blog Backwoods Mama, thinks we should stop saying those two words though. As a nature lover, the Canada-based mom is a big advocate of letting kids play outdoors and exploring nature as a family. “You can often find us hiking, biking, camping, rock climbing and skiing,” she wrote on her blog.
Adventurous as their family is, seeing her kids in rather precarious situations still makes the mom nervous. Talking about her kids playing on the big fallen tree near their home, she shared, “They’ve crossed the log many times, but each time they do I hold my breath in anticipation…and stop myself from blurting out ‘be careful!’ a hundred times over.’”
Here is a photo she posted on Instagram of her three kiddos:
Why does she think “be careful” is not something we should say to kids? It’s not specific enough, she explained in a post. Such a broad and vague instruction could mean anything or nothing to a child. Your child could ignore you because she doesn’t really understand what you want her to do. She could also give you a look of confusion, or after hearing the panic in your voice, she would run to you, scared that something bad is going to happen.
In an article on hyperactivity in children, developmental and behavioral pediatrician Dr. Ma. Theresa Arranz-Lim told SmartParenting.com.ph, advises, “Be specific. Say something like, ‘I want you to sit here and not touch anything while you wait for me to finish.’ Tell your child exactly how you expect them to behave.”
You can even curb future misbehavior this way if your instructions stick, like when you say, “Sit on your chair when you’re at the dinner table” instead of just saying “No!”
Josée’s final point against saying “be careful” is that it can instill fear in children. “It teaches kids that they should avoid taking risks, trying new things and making mistakes because bad things could happen,” she said. “Yes, bad things can happen, but kids need to engage in risky and challenging play for healthy growth and development.”
Children are naturally curious about the world around them and the need to explore can result in scrapes and bruises. “Our fear of children being harmed (mostly in minor ways) may result in more fearful children,” said Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early-childhood education at Queen Maud University College, according to The Atlantic.
Think of it as prep for adulthood. “In the real world, life is filled with risks — financial, physical, emotional, social – and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development,” said Joe Frost, a safety consultant from John Carroll University.
So, what should you do instead? Of course, when your child is in danger, you should act immediately. But, if you’ve stopped and assessed the situation and realized that there’s no immediate harm, try helping them become aware of potential harm (like how you are) and let them figure things out for themselves, said Josée.
For example, if the sidewalk is wet from the rain on your way home, say something like, “See how the ground is wet and could be slippery?” Or, if your child is trying to pour himself a glass of water, but you're afraid she might drop the pitcher and hurt herself, say, “There might be a better way to do this. Try gripping the bottom of the pitcher too.”