Near our home there’s a forest that we enjoy exploring. At the end of a ravine there lies a fallen tree. It spans across the distance of the ravine, from one end to the other. The tree is solid, but falling would hurt, a lot. Nevertheless, the challenge is there and my kids must take it, every time. They’ve crossed the log many times, but each time they do I hold my breath in anticipation… and to stop myself from blurting out “Be Careful!” a hundred times over.
Why We Need to Stop Telling Our Kids to “Be Careful”
Saying “Be Careful!” to children is probably one of the least helpful things we can say to them. First of all, it’s not specific enough. “Be Careful!” could mean “watch out for the poison ivy!” or “watch out the sky is falling!”. When you tell a child “Be Careful!” it usually doesn’t get the response you’re hoping for, either they’ll give you a look of confusion (“what’s there to be afraid of?”), ignore you (“this isn’t scary!”) or start crying (“something really bad is about to happen!”).
The other problem with saying “Be Careful!” is that it instills fear. It teaches kids that they should avoid taking risks, trying new things and making mistakes because bad things could happen, an yes bad things can happen, but kids need to engage in risky and challenging play for healthy growth and development.1
What To Do and Say Instead
Breaking the Habit!
Imagine this scenario: Your child is climbing up a small tree and the slim branches are bowing under her weight. In a flash your brain calculate multiple scenarios, all of them end badly. Even though your child isn’t in immediate danger you want to call out “Be Careful!”, here’s what you can do instead:
STOP: Notice what you are about to say and tell your brain to “STOP!” or “PAUSE”.
BREATHE: Acknowledge how you feel and take a deep controlled breath.
REFLECT: Look at the situation with fresh eyes and ask yourself:
- What is the potential for serious harm?
- Why does this situation make me feel uncomfortable?
- What skills is my child learning right now?
RESPOND: There isn’t one right response for every situation. If your child is in danger by all means do act quickly! However, some situations might require you to do nothing and other situations might require you to help your child foster awareness or problem solve.
My youngest child isn’t as sure footed as his older siblings. He tends to trip and fall much more. I think it’s because he’s always trying so hard to keep up. When we’re out hiking we explore places with steep cliffs, boulder fields, slippery stones and loose rock. Lots of risks! We talk about his feet a lot on these hikes: “Try moving your feet slowly over this area”, “Notice how these rocks are wet?” and “Do your feet need a rest?”. Slowly he’s becoming just as sure footed as the rest of us.
Every time you want to say “Be Careful!” see it as an opportunity to help your child foster greater awareness of their environment and their bodies. Try saying:
- Notice how… these rocks are slippery, the log is rotten, that branch is strong.
- Do you see… the poison ivy, your friends nearby?
- Try moving… your feet slowly, carefully, quickly, strongly.
- Try using your… hands, feet, arms, legs.
- Can you hear… the rushing water, the singing birds, the wind?
- Do you feel… stable on that rock, the heat from the fire?
- Are you feeling… scared, excited, tired, safe?
Encouraging Problem Solving
The other day I walked into my backyard and my two children were having an imaginary battle with two cultivators (rakes with three pointy prongs!) while swinging on swings. I wanted to blurt out “AH! YIKES! BE CAREFUL!!” but after taking deep breath I said “It looks like you’re having a very intense battle, but those tools are meant for gardening, what could you use instead?”. They put the tools away, found some stick and continued their adventure.
It’s important that we let our kids engage in risky or challenging play because it’s a great way for them to practice problem solving skills. Help them out by asking:
- What’s your plan… if you climb that boulder, cross that log?
- What can you use… to get across, for your adventure?
- Where will you… put that rock, climb that tree, dig that hole?
- How will you…. get down, go up, get across?
- Who will… be with you, go with you, help you if?
Download the FREE PDF here: What to Say to Kids Instead of “Be Careful!” (PDF)
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You have nailed it so well. A moment of pause to reflect is crucial, it may just over-protective nature, which will surely hinder children confidence and diminish their fearlessness. Love all the suggestions to help them develop life-long skills of awareness and problem-solving. Outdoors are the most wonderful learning place, provided parents do their part right by using right words and being role models. Great advice and a reminder for all the parents.
Really enjoy this and the number of examples you give. It is a habit I’m trying to break!
Loved this post and the specific advice!
Great advice. Thank you. Wish my parents had done something like that.
i like this post becauae it teaches the values of what children are goimg through and give them.an example to be more careful for them selves and others who are with them that are out there in the woods trying out new things in the world
Wonderful post! I worked hard while raising adventuresome kids to back off and not say anything. Your suggestions would have been so much better….giving me a productive way to interact and (potentially) heeling them more quickly learn to mitigate risks. I’m sharing this with many of my young-mama friends!
Wonderful reminder and great inspiration for those many times when I have to bite my tongue. Thank you!
Wonderful! Great advice . Thank you
So from now on when she’s climbing up unstable trees, I’ll just shout, “don’t fall and snap your arm in half unless YOURE going to be paying the $250 ER copay…”
Exactly. “Be careful” is a perfectly normal, responsible thing for a parent to say; and entirely necessary. People are so insanely sensitive today it’s creating a bunch of victims who’ve never been victimized. Therapy session: “tell me why you’re here”… “my mom said be careful” ?
There are plenty of parents who need advice- who are abusive and dysfunction- but not because they say “be careful”. The way people look for reasons, today, to be labeled a victim is alarming.
All 3 of my kids were adventurous and I was constantly saying be careful! They seem to have survived and are showing no ill effects from my incompetence. Who knew?
Only just saw your site for the first time. I love what I saw and can’t wait to see what else is on this site.
You’re right to point out that saying ‘be careful’ is rarely helpful, and that one option is to say nothing. My hunch is that this is often – perhaps very often – a good option, and worthy of more attention. A good first question to ask is ‘do I need to say anything at all?’ Playworkers talk of the value of peripheral vision, and ‘loitering with intent’. Another problem with ‘be careful’ is that grown-ups often say it when children are, in fact, being careful. A child hearing this could, as you say, become anxious. But they could also conclude that the grown-ups are stupid, and pay less attention to warnings in future.
This is one area in which urban children are very resilient! We had no one watching after us, so we learned on our own what not to do. 🙂
I love this concept and the thinking behind it. My daughter is still only little (16 months) so any suggestions for how to start this early with toddlers who don’t yet have a solid understanding of everything you say?
Yes! As she begins to naturally explore use the words suggested at the end of the article:
Do you notice how…?
Do you see how…?
Can you hear…?
Are you feeling?
What’s your plan for…?
What can you use…?
Where will you…?
How will you…?
When you use these types of questions you practice responding with observation questions instead of “Be careful!” And she learns to be observant AND careful. The key is to keep her aware of what’s around her and how she feels, but not unnecessarily afraid.
This is the perfect time for you to startso you both learn together!!
Good suggestions! Although I am an outdoor person myself, and in my work, and I take risks all the time, I still find myself telling my son to be careful all the time. I know it’s not helpful but I can’t help it. I’ll work on being more specific. I grew up playing outside and climbing on everything. So he will, too. Except we’ve already had the bad fall from the playground ladder where he fell on his back and we went to the ER. Scariest moment of my life. But he was ok. I still try to let him climb things, but listen more closely to my mommy instincts.
Great advice! Was recommended to read this from a friend. Thank you!
Thank you for being so practical. So many times people tell you “dont do this as a parent” but never give you the proper alternatives instead. Im excited to read your other articles. Also the suggestions you made will help develop communication skills with the kids. Thanks again!!!
I very much like your article on what to say instead of “be careful”. I want to save it in my “grandparenting tips” in Pinterest but it wouldn’t save in the usual way, even though I saw the Pinterest icon, at the top of the article. How can I save it in Pinterest? Thank you.
Love your Blog!! Thank-you sharing the be careful in PDF! We are moving into a more risk taking playyard and it will be helpful for supporting ECEs in reframing our thinking and conversations with the children!
A friend posted this on Facebook and I found it to be exceptional for me to be a better grandparent and help my grandson enjoy camping and the outdoors. I am a rookie blogger and starting a site called TheRVLady.com. Just wanted to know if I may have your permission to post the summary information on my site with a link back to your posting? Great site, keep up the work. Thank you!
Thanks ckear and comprehensive. Let me add also point out that ADULTS say this to ADULTS! It dies foster ir at least imply a lack of confidence or awareness on the recipient. Another expression I disdain is “Drive Safe!”. “Watch for black ice; keep a good distance thought, etc” I know the generic is less nerdy but ahh it irks me.
No. It just means they care for that person. If people take kind words as a knock to their confidence, they have confidence issues to begin with. We arent talking about someone saying “don’t drive like a moron” here.. we are talking about loving words “be careful” which most people say, do not have any issue with, and construe as a gesture of caring… not an act of aggression. This society is losing its collective mind. How miserable everyone must be to police words like this and assign an even slightly negative meaning. It’s funny that kids of 20-30 years ago are not nearly as troubled as kids today whose parents are walking on eggshells w every word. Kids are in therapy, on antidepressants, dysfunctional as hell because they’re taught to get mad at words like “be careful” and God forbid we assume gender. It’s all madness. Just be nice. If someone gets mad at you for “be careful” – I’m thinking there’s a tendency to love being a victim. so I guess we cannot say “take care” now either because it could imply you don’t bathe. Dear God.
Hi yes I love that you wrote this article.! I appreciate the mention of this with adults as I was bullied and shamed today by a 50 yearold man whoismy cousin , first conversation with him in yearsfrom a random seeing him somewhere and I said BYE! Enjoyed talked and he said tAKE CARE B CAREFUL! Wtf? I drove there and been driving34 years and itwas broad daylight in a small town. I left with anger and what the hell do u say? NO! You are crazy and not my superior? Self aggrandizing and narcissistic…so thanks for validation . I have three college degrees!
I’m 40 years old and my mum still tells me to drive carefully, despite having told her this makes me feel like she thinks I’m so stupid that I drive recklessly unless she reminds me otherwise, which in turn makes me angry and makes me more likely to have an accident. In these instances, if you can’t hold your tongue, wish someone a safe or good journey, so you’re not patronising them.
Rather dramatic response to your mom’s love and concern for you. Why do people take a loving “drive carefully” and turn it into a therapy session? Dear God. Lighten up.
What I get from this article is a reminder to be conscious in our parenting and care with our children. To allow space for them to explore independently with us being available should support be needed. Our own tapes from childhood always need unpacking – I heard myself saying many things from my childhood when I parented. Now as a teacher I value the learning opportunities risky play provides and trust the children have self awareness of limits and risks and ‘be careful’ is rendered redundant most of the time. Like the article says, if we choose to say anything at all, authentically responding to a situation, we can always say how we feel, “ I can see you are climbing high, I will stay close as sometimes you get stuck and sometimes I worry about your safety “. I’m here if you need me , and I believe in you. That’s what they see and hear when we pay attention even silent attention. Be careful isn’t really paying attention- it’s alarmist and panic inducing. Paying attention means we can really see if there is a potential problem or not.
She’s shaming you as your feelings are validating. My mother never once said that to me in25 years of visiting her from 200 miles away. We are equal adults and an share info witheachother without telli g each other what to do. Set the boundary and have a conseq hence. I trust you to drive safely!
Excited to learn for our new stage in life – grandparenting!
“Try moving your feet carefully” ?
I’m a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education student on placement in a preschool. This information was given to me as part of my mid-placement review. After seeing this in practice also, I’m impressed. I will endeavour to include this in my practice.
…. and here it is! I am printing this pdf and carrying it around on my person at all times. It is worth breaking the habit of not only saying “be careful” but using negative approaches in general “don’t do this or that, etc”. The examples you give above are excellent examples of positive speech… which is something I work on daily (and fail at daily as well).
Thanks again for great blog posts!
Fantastic! Thank you for this. I am a therapist and I find this article very refreshing. Keep up the great work.
Some of these comments are wild. Who’s really oversensitive here? These are just suggestions to communicate more effectively with your child and teach situational awareness. Because they don’t know how to “be careful” in every situation.
This is all so great. My mother was a very kind mother! However, I was very adventurous, Be Careful was always told me and yes, fear was always instilled and that affected my decision making to the point that I have a very difficult time today with making a decision.
I like that unsated of say be carful will more confuse of the children we can be close to them without feeling us and support them if something will be happen, I teach my children to be independent and been strong to grew and build their muscles to develop healthy,
I would say there no right or wrong way to parent a child with comes to saying “be careful”. In fact, when my 3 year saw me slip with my sox on the hardwood stairs because I was rushing down it. He told me be careful when I fell.. He walks slowly on stairs now and holds the rails because potential of slipping and falling exist.. Be careful used with correctly and explaining to child solutions is totally fine… We are over analyzing things now…
Thank you for sharing your thoughts Sam. Many parents tend say ‘Be Careful’ to their children when it’s often not needed. This article is about encouraging parents to accept that risky play is a normal part of childhood and that it’s not always necessary or helpful to say be careful when kids do so.
I disagree with a lot of what you’re saying not wanting to be rude but a lot of it happy trails
You are more than welcome to disagree. Happy trails to you too!