Here’s a hot take that’s not quite so hot when you stop to think about it:

“Be careful” is probably one of the least helpful things you’ll ever say to your child.

For the same reason I don’t say no to my daughter, “Be careful” probably won’t elicit quite the response you were hoping for. Either you’ll be met with a look of confusion (‘What is there to be afraid of?’), your child will ignore you (‘This isn’t scary’!), or they’ll start crying (‘Something bad’s about to happen!’). Moreover, “Be careful” instils fear for no good reason. It teaches kids to avoid taking risks, trying new things, and making mistakes. But these activities are foundational to healthy child development, and when children don’t engage in them growing up they often become scared or insular.

Okay—so what can you say instead?

Picture the scene:

Your child’s climbing a small tree, the slim branches bowing beneath their weight. In a flash your brain calculates the probability of multiple scenarios—and all of them end badly. Even though your child is not in any immediate danger, you’re ready to call out regardless: “Be careful!”

…But how about instead you tried this:

  • Take a moment. Notice what you’re about to say—before you say it.
  • Breathe. Acknowledge how you feel, and ask why you feel that way.
  • Reflect. Look at the situation with fresh eyes.

Then ask yourself:

  • What is the potential for serious harm?
  • Is this situation making me uncomfortable?
  • What skills is my child learning right now?

Then respond accordingly. If your child is actually in danger, act fast! But if they’re not, let things play out—and remember to inwardly praise your own restraint. You can always talk about it afterwards if need be, foster a little risk awareness in your child or problem-solve together. Practise this method—it will pay you dividends in the long run.

Let’s try another scenario

Okay—so your youngest isn’t as sure of foot as their siblings. They tend to trip and fall much more. Often simply because they’re racing to keep up!

You’re out hiking, exploring landscapes of steep cliffs, boulder fields, loose rock, and slippery stones. Risks abound.

But when they inevitably start moving apace to keep up with your other kids, try the method again. Rather than “Be careful”, try “Have you thought about moving your feet more slowly over areas that look like that? You probably won’t slip as much!” Or “Notice how these rocks are wet?” Or “Do your feet need a rest?” Slowly they become just as sure-footed as everyone else. And every time you could have said “Be careful”, instead you grasped the opportunity to foster greater awareness in your youngest of both their environment and their body.

One more for the road

You walk into the garden, and are greeted by the sight of your two kids having a pretend battle. With garden rakes. While they’re also using the swings.

You feel it bubbling up: “Be careful!”

…but then you take a deep breath and pause. “That looks like an intense battle! But you know, those tools are meant for gardening—let’s see what else you could use.”

They put the tools back where they found them without fuss, happen upon some big old branches for their makeshift swords, and continue with their hand-to-hand combat as you exhale, acknowledge, and appreciate how much better you feel for having imparted useful information while staying calm and not alerting the kids to your concerns.

Remember: risk taking is vital in childhood. Challenging play is kids’ primary way of problem solving independent of grownups. I know it can be hard to fight your urge to express fear, but trust me: in the long run you’ll forge a healthier, more constructive, and more trusting relationship with your child.