On an unseasonably warm December day a couple weeks ago, I took my kids to the park. As soon as he set foot on the playground, my 3-year-old made a beeline for the monkey bars. They led to a platform about eight feet from the ground and he had never, to the best of my knowledge, completed a stunt like this before.
My first thought was that it was way too high for a kid his age, but I fought the urge to instruct him to dismount. Instead, I hollered my go-to phrase — "Be careful." He had heard this phrase before and it seemed to fall upon deaf ears as he continued to navigate his way to the top of the play structure. My heart was in my throat, but I was also impressed by how quickly my son had learned this new physical skill.
Like many parents these days, I instinctively call out the seemingly harmless words "be careful" to my children several times per day. My intentions are good; I don't want them to get hurt, after all. But that night I replayed the event at the park over in my mind, as I suddenly remembered something I had read recently about how parents should squash the urge to say "be careful" to our kids. I decided to look further into this claim.
It turns out the phrase "be careful" is incredibly overused by most parents (as I can attest to firsthand). Whether a child trips, drops a toy, or is actually engaging in risky behavior, parents are quick to respond with an urgent "Be careful!" But the problem with overusing such a phrase is that it can be rendered meaningless (that is, the child ignores you . . . can't imagine what that's like).
Plus, when I was intervening every time my child faced a risk, I wasn't letting him learn for himself how to calculate risks and deal with them on his own. Stepping back while children engage in somewhat risky play — a natural childhood instinct — can do wonders for their self-confidence, resilience, and even risk-management skills. In fact, it has even been shown to reduce the risk of injury.
Armed with my research, I'm committed to cutting out the calls for carefulness. Instead, I'll first valuate each situation I instinctually think is dangerous. If my kids are headed for serious harm, I'll intervene with more meaningful phrases and instructions. I'll be taking some cues from Josée Bergeron of Backwoods Mama and use specific directions that will help my kids learn how to navigate possibly dangerous situations. ("Notice how that rock is slippery," or "Do you feel stable on that branch?") But if it looks like they have a good handle on the situation, I'll bite my tongue and let them try their best.
Of course this doesn't mean I'll throw caution to the wind. I still believe it's my job as a parent to teach my children how to recognize and manage risks. If the child is in true, immediate danger, I'll certainly react quickly. But oftentimes we hinder children's play, and in turn their development, by stepping in too quickly. Instead of keeping my kids "as safe as possible," I'm focusing on ensuring they're "as safe as necessary." Bumps, bruises, and skinned knees are bound to happen. In many cases, getting out of my kids' way to let them discover the world and their own abilities will be my most important job.