If you were to close your eyes for a minute and think about your day, what phrases do you remember uttering to your kids on repeat? Chances are the words “be careful!” were shouted at least once or twice (probably along with “no hitting!” and “who did this?”). But that’s not so bad, right? You’re just trying to keep your children—and anyone who crosses their path—out of harm’s way.
But here’s the thing: Constantly telling kids to be careful means they won’t learn how to take risks or make mistakes. It’s basically the two-word equivalent of helicopter parenting (and its cousin, snowplow parenting).
“Taking risks means sometimes failing,” writes parenting expert Jamie Glowacki in Oh Crap! I Have a Toddler. “If you never take a risk, if you play it safe all the time, you become afraid of making a mistake. You become afraid of failure. The ramifications of this core attitude affect people throughout their entire lives.” Remember, failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing—in fact, getting out of one’s comfort zone often goes hand-in-hand with success. (Just ask Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates or Vera Wang).
And here’s something else to consider—shouting “be careful” to a child who’s happily swinging on the monkey bars sends them the message that you don’t trust their judgement or that there are hidden dangers that only the grown-ups can see. Cue the self-doubt and anxiety. In fact, one study from Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health found that not encouraging kids to take risks can cause later anxiety issues.
But what if your kid looks like they’re about to fall or hurt themselves? You might be surprised just what your child can do, argues Glowacki. “When we bite our lips, holding back a ‘be careful,’ we almost always find that our kids are fine and way more skilled than we thought. They can navigate their risk better than we assume. While they may make some mistakes along the way, they will definitely have some super cool successes. Risk assessment grows and blooms in this place.” Note: There are of course some situations (say, in a busy parking lot) where the words “be careful” are totally appropriate—and necessary.
Look, when you’re shouting at your kid to “be careful!” on the playground, you’re obviously not trying to hinder their development. What you’re really asking for is risk assessment. Nature lover, adventurer and mom-of-four Josée Bergeron of BackwoodsMama.com breaks it down for us: rather than stymie growth, try to use the moment as an opportunity for fostering awareness and problem solving. Here are some suggestions from Bergeron (plus a few from us) on how to encourage both of these valuable skills instead of resorting to the words “be careful.”
- Remember that… sticks are sharp, your sister is standing right next to you, rocks are heavy.
- Notice how… these rocks are slippery, the glass is filled up to the top, that branch is strong.
- What’s your plan… with that big stick, if you climb up that tree?
- Do you feel… stable on that rock, balanced on that step, the heat from the fire?
- How will you… get down, go up, get across?
- Can you see… the toys on the floor, the end of the path, that big rock over there?
- Can you hear… the rushing water, the wind, the other kids playing?
- Try using your… hands, feet, arms, legs.
- Sticks/rocks/babies need space. Do you have enough space? Can you go somewhere with more space?
- Are you feeling… scared, excited, tired, safe?
- Take your time.
- I’m here if you need me.