I tell my four-year-old daughter to "be careful" so often that I've abbreviated it to "caref". It become an instinctual tick. [She's about to climb out of the bathtub.] "Caref." [She's swimming near the pool rail.] "Caref." [Her knee is really close to her baby cousin's face.] "Caref." [She's skipping inside a clothing store.] "Caref!"
While I'd like to think that my warnings are leading her to ponder her current course of action, they probably aren't. "'Be careful!' can mean so much, but without the specific details, it can also be meaningless," writes Petra Eperjesi of the Child & Nature Alliance of Canada. "And when we hear something over and over and over again, we all start to tune out, don't we?"
The words can even be damaging. Caroline Paul, who has given a wonderful TED Talk on raising brave girls, writes that "Be careful!" falls under "the insidious language of fear". According to a study in The Journal of Pediatric Psychology, parents are "four times more likely to tell girls than boys to be more careful" after injuries, which as Paul notes, may stop them from trying challenging physical activities outside their comfort zone in the future.
Kids do need guidance, but the reminders should apply to the situation at hand. My daughter's preschool teacher, who is wise and has watched over a lot of kids on the playground, often tells children to "remember". Remember that rocks are heavy. Remember that there are friends underneath you as you're dropping sand down the slide. Remember that sticks can be sharp. I like that a lot.
Eperjesi gives a list of "Be careful" alternatives when it comes to playing in nature. Here are some that can be used in all types of situations:
- "Stay focused on what you're doing."
- "What is your next move?"
- "Do you feel safe there?"
- "Take your time."
- "Does that branch feel strong and stable?"
- "I'm here if you need me."
- "Please find a safe spot for your stick while you're running."
- "Watch out for other people and give them lots of space."
- "Let's move to this lower-traffic zone."
- "Sticks need space. Sarah, look around you — do you have enough space to swing that big stick?"
- "Please keep one end of your stick on the ground!"
- "What's your plan with that big stick?"
- "Rocks need space!"
- "Find more space!"
- "Before you throw that rock, what do you need to look for?"
- "That rock looks really heavy! Can you manage it?"
- "Please move slowly and carefully near the ___."
- "Please give each other lots of space so that no one feels like they need to push, and no one gets knocked over by accident."
- "Do you feel stable/balanced?"
- "Do you need more space?"
- "Make eye contact before you tackle someone. Make sure they know you are coming so that they can get their body ready."
- "Check in with each other. Make sure everyone is still having a good time."
- "Ask her if she's OK."
- "Ask him if he's still having fun."
- "Did you like that? Make sure you tell her if you didn't like that."
- "If you need to run, meet me at the next trail marker!"
- "Let's check this cave/fort to make sure it's safe to hide in."