Is Saying 'Be Careful' Really Not Specific Enough? Podcast

age appropriate child behaviour parenting challenges play podcast Nov 11, 2022

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The advice is clear. 

Don’t say be careful, it’s not specific enough. 

And after every single time you read that, you see this super detailed explanation of what you should say instead. So I got to thinking. Could I honestly say more than be careful in a cautious situation and should I actually be saying more? 

In today's episode I tackle this question and address some of the layers that I think lead us to believe we need to craft everything that comes out of our mouths.

Note: The transcript below may not be exactly the same as the podcast.

So the other day I saw a hilarious Reel by momcomnyc on Instagram about what ‘be careful’ really means… and it prompted me to finally sit down and do this episode because it’s something I’ve been meaning to talk about for a really long time. It was funny because it was true, but it was also funny because I think we are overthinking some things and not putting the pieces together for others. The gist of the reel was be careful really meant, don’t do xyz because you might fall and hurt yourself to the point where I will have to take to the ER and we don’t have time for that… and like most advice the caption then followed with, be careful isn’t specific enough.

There’s a lot of advice out there related to scripting the things you say to your child. I’m not saying language isn’t important. I have an entire module dedicated to it in my program and I talk (no pun intended) about it a lot. My signature framework is called the Language of Kindness. But I think we’ve gone overboard  on some things by overcomplicating them and then over simplifying others to be more attractive aka fast fixes.

I ran a preschool for 7.5 years. This means I spent the better part of my day talking to 2-4 year olds for 6-8 hours a day (not including when my own children were in that phase). It was well known that I believe in treating children with dignity and respect. That I used big words and explained lots of things. I never made a habit of talking down to children.  But, I did speak in age appropriate ways and that means clear concise language, especially when it matters. 

I’m going to admit it. I fell for some of this stuff too and berated myself for not being more specific…. As I read more and more advice on how to consider how you speak and be mindful of the things you say something wasn’t sitting right with me. Some of it I did intuitively, but other recommendations caught me off guard and at first I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Especially the advice around be careful. The advice is clear. Don’t say be careful, it’s not specific enough. And after every single time you read that, you see this super detailed explanation of what you should say instead. So I got to thinking. Could I honestly say more than be careful in a cautious situation and should I actually be saying more? 

The answer I came to was no and here’s why. 

Detailed instructions in place of be careful are not being heard (2-5 words and then… la la la). This isn’t just young children. I know a lot of pre-teens, teens and adults who tune long sentences out as well, particularly when they are deeply engaged in something or being directed at a time we aren’t really present to engage in listening. I started to pick up on a trend with this kind of mindful language… Simple phrases are being turned into mini-lectures. Nobody has time or energy for that and the truth is, kids aren’t listening or they are too young for that kind of learning/complexity of language in instructions. I think this is why so many parents are getting increasingly frustrated with navigating everyday situations. You say the right things, or what you’ve read you should say and it’s not really working out. Then you feel like your child isn’t listening… and it’s kind of true, but it’s not entirely their fault. It’s not yours either.

Let’s dig in a little more. If it’s truly a be careful moment, you don’t have time for detailed instructions. And here’s the real clue. Is the problem the words ‘be careful’ or is the actual problem that it’s being over used?? That in our over-present status of parenting we are saying something a little too often? That be careful has become the go to for little things and big. 

This leads me to part B. the advice that Be careful is not specific enough.

Okay this is where I actually think we are doing a disservice to children’s intelligence. We feel that we need to detail for them what it is they need to be careful of. Here’s what I know from all that time with preschoolers. Be careful meant, Tara is warning me of something and I need to slow down and figure it out. I might say something like. Be careful the ice is slippery to add some specificity. But clear, concise and succinct is the goal. And I didn’t use it for climbing on the play structure, I used it for situations where a child needed to be careful. Where ER level risk was happening.

I asked in my IG stories the other day what other people thought of the Reel and a couple people responded with simple things they say instead. Instead of be careful they say things like ‘I notice’ or ‘be aware’ => where this means be aware of others, aware of body, aware of surroundings. Someone else shared that not one child has ever been more careful because they were told to ‘be careful’… This is what happens when we use certain phrases too often. I also see this with the word stop. 

To learn to respect a word, there must be consistent follow through. There must be language development and reinforcement. I call this concept Onion Language. The idea that our words are only as meaningful to children as the layers we have built for their understanding. And we as adults hold a great deal of weight behind our words because we’ve built our experience and understanding around those words, 

but unless you take the time to do the same for children, their layers are not developed and they only understand one or two layers. The same is true when we are ambiguous with words. Stop is a great example. Stop is only validated some of the time, not all of the time and this makes it hard for children to understand when it really means what it should. Key piece, taking the time to build the language in many areas, not just tricky moments or moments of high energy and excitement.

Keeping this in mind, I really think the issue is not always about getting more specific in the moment, it’s getting clearer about when and how often we say something like ‘be careful.’ 

I also think the lengthy speeches are far less meaningful than trusting our child needs to take some caution and figure out what it is they need to be careful of. Children are play based learners. They learn best through movement and interaction. Yet, we are talking more and more and I actually think children are learning less essential life skills as a result. Again, I’m a huge advocate for language, but not in this way. 

I also think the things we are afraid of are impossible to protect children from. Part of learning and growing is falling, tripping, bumping and bruising. I fully put my hand up here that I have also had moments of overprotection. That even running an outdoor and play based preschool I have some discomfort with exposing children to certain kinds of risk, but one way I managed this was by making sure they had gear to protect them (helmets for our icy play space) and guidelines for safer use of things like the climbing structure. So instead of protecting them I thought of how to strike a balance. 

For example children would need to show certain skills have been met to use certain elements. I didn’t help children climb. If they couldn’t get on the play structure, they had to figure it out. So instead of physically helping them  I would offer assistance as a non-contact spotter. I would also teach them about making sure they had fall spaces around climbing walls and such. If you are climbing up a steep surface, make sure nobody is standing below you and if someone is climbing make sure you aren’t under them. This kind of stuff. This is how you teach children to understand and assess risk. You also teach them that hard work is rewarding and doing something by yourself independently brings a great deal of internal pride. To do this you also have to navigate how you feel about watching children fail until they succeed and that not all disappointment can or should be fixed.

Many years ago I attended a workshop by one of the leading experts in natural play for children. Adam Bienenstock was talking about modern play structures versus more natural ones and how we physically help children play on modern structures in a way their bodies can’t handle and that when they can they are bored by the limits of what they offer so they climb them in relatively unsafe ways to get that need meet. Like on top and such.

The idea he presented that in more natural play environments of trees and rocks, one can only climb something as high as they can fall when they are younger. If you don’t have grip strength, coordination etc you can’t climb very far on a natural element so you won’t fall very far. Add age appropriate assessments for risk with this concept and you raise children more capable of making decisions. 

Yes, there will still be some minor injuries, but mostly in line with what bodies can handle and recover from. Something that has stuck with me is him saying that modern play structures are designed to aid children and remove some of their problem solving so they take risks they can’t handle and quite often they are aided by adults to navigate elements. Which actually leads to bigger injuries because children don’t get good at assessing manageable risks. I’m simplifying things here for brevity, but you get the idea.

So here’s the thing I remind myself of… it’s a lot easier to trip and fall when you are small and if you don’t get skills for tripping and falling when you are younger, it hurts a lot more when you are older. Children need to know how to navigate risk and sometimes that does mean they misjudge. I think when we reframe our thinking this way it’s possible to see that be careful is for those situations where your child is truly at risk and isn’t making safe choices versus, they might trip, mistep or not do something perfectly (like walk across the log without slipping or whatever the case might be.) I do think there is an element of perfectionism or accomplishment that can be underlying our expectations of children’s play. We don’t mean for it to happen. It happens because the alternative to not doing it perfectly means tripping, falling…dropping off the monkey bars, not getting up the entire ladder and so on. In other words, you can’t actually safely fail.

Okay, I know there’s some hard truths in this message. That what I’m saying is that it’s us and our approach to risk that needs to be evaluated versus changing the way we speak about everything. We have become risk adverse and in our discomfort we have become ever present in our childrens lives, guiding their every move. When we pause to think on this for a moment we realize we are creating some of our own problems and scripts and language aren’t actually going to solve it because those are just bandaids that overlook the root cause. Children are actually pretty amazing at being careful when they are taught how important that word can be. When you use it for everything, it’s not specific enough. But lengthy explanations isn’t the answer either. 

I think this idea is applicable with a lot of script type strategies. For example, scripts for feelings tend to focus on what to say in the moment but don’t build skills for the underlying feeling. Knowing what you should say in a tricky moment won’t help you identify the root cause of the tricky moment. I’m not saying all scripts are bad or that changing our language in tricky moments isn’t a good step. They aren’t and I definitely use some of them too. But detailed scripts for everything means you probably aren’t being heard and you often sound  like you’re talking like someone else… in a sense it’s fake. And it sounds fake. But more importantly, is changing the way you speak reflected in taking that next step… digging a little deeper to the why. Talking more isn’t always the best solution… in fact, it can have the exact opposite outcome to what you were hoping for.

It’s also lot to remember and I hear many parents saying “I know I should have said this but I said that… You can’t script every single conversation and you should’t make every moment a teachable moment using language alone. Children are naturally curious and we do need to make sure they take manageable risks, learn to navigate their feelings with support and so on. BUT right now I think we are little too present and the problem isn’t always what we say, it’s that we are always saying.