Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Instead Of Commanding "Be Careful"

Recently a parent told me she thinks I'm like Roald Dahl's character Willy Wonka. "You always tell the kids: 'If you want to get hurt go ahead and try it.'"

I do say those kinds of things. I once told a kid, "Hey, you could try sticking your finger in that electrical outlet!" He responded, "No, Teacher Tom, I might die!"

At least once every field trip I'll ask something like, "Should we run out in the street?" I know I can count on someone to remind me, "No, Teacher Tom, we'll get hit by a car!"

And yes, sometimes, when kids are apparently bent on attempting a feat that looks particularly hazardous, I'll say something along the lines of, "I'm going to watch to see who gets hurt so I know who I'm going to take care of while they're crying." To which the reply is, "Neither of us is going to get hurt because we're being careful."

If a couple of boys are racing our wagons down the hill, I might ask, "Hey, are you guys planning on running over anybody?"

And they'll answer, "No, Teacher Tom, because we're looking where we're going."

If someone is on the tire swing, I might suggest, "Hey, swing that direction and see if you can hit your head on the tree."

And they'll answer, "No, Teacher Tom, that would hurt."

If a couple of girls are using our homemade ladder to climb onto our monkey bars climber, I might say, "Which one of you is going to fall?"

And they'll answer, "No, Teacher Tom, we won't fall because we're holding on!"

Or if children making a yarn spider web start wrapping it instead around their necks, I'll say, "If you don't want to breathe any more, you can put a whole lot more around your neck."

And they'll answer, "No, Teacher Tom, I want to breathe!"

I guess it's what I do instead of commanding, "Be careful!"

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the children did not fare too well. As a boy I recall feeling that they were all, with the exception of Charlie, quite stupid for acting with no consideration of the possible consequences. As an adult I now see Dahl's larger point: that their stupidity was the consequence of bad parenting.

But that's fiction. In the real world, young children are capable of assessing many of their own day-to-day risks, but only if they've had the chance to practice; only if they're well versed in the art of critical thinking and not the habits of mere obedience. An adult who commands, "Don't slide down that banister!" might be keeping a child safe in that moment, but is also, at the same time, robbing him of a chance to think for himself, which makes him that much less safe in the future when no one is there to tell him what to do. Better to state the facts ("If you slide down that banister you might get hurt.") and let him practice thinking things through for himself, to consider the possible consequences of his actions, to assess his own risks, to ask himself, "Is this a risk worth taking?" 

There are no guarantees, of course, but the habit of critical thinking is, I think, the best safety precaution there is.

Note: It has come to my attention through many of the various comment threads on Facebook and elsewhere that some people have interpreted these comments as sarcastic. I would never use a sarcastic tone with a young child (and hardly ever with adults). I offer these comments either as earnestly as possible or as silly jokes.

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Avantika said...

I had this exact question in my mind today!! I'm going to practice this from now on. I say 'be careful' way too many times with my 4 year old.

Jacqueline said...

I love this! Btw- I read your blog every day. Thank you for doing what you do.

jules said...

Ha! I do the same thing. Once had another teacher tell me I shouldn't use sarcasm with kids. Told her that wasn't sarcasm (although there was a part of me that DID mean it that way.)

alexandra said...

In some book I read the suggestion to say "Pay attention." instead of "be careful" & I love it. I usually will let my child do whatever she wants of the moderately dangerous stuff standing on/jumping off furniture, climbing things not made for climbing but tell her she might get hurt. I tell her it might be worth the risk and it might not, you decide. About 50% of the time she chooses to go ahead and do it but since she is aware of the risk she I usually paying a lot of attention she rarely gets hurt.

Teacher Tom said...

Actually Jules, I agree with you colleague. I don't think sarcasm is appropriate. I offer my comments earnestly.

Anonymous said...

From Julie M: My mentor teacher would say "That will sure feel good when it stops hurting." The child would very briefly pause, think and respond the same way your children do. Occasionally a bump, or scrape happened and the kids would call for "magic water" which was a cold, wet paper towel the child would pat the owie with. Whenever the bandaid box came out everyone would get one because the children were fascinated by them. We bought them at Costco!

Tree said...

Hi Teacher Tom
Do you think this works with children under 2 who are still learning to speak?
My son has a pretty good understanding of words but doesn't speak many yet. He is a big risk taker and has little (to no) fear. I often use your technique but he seems to go for it anyway...

Hattie W said...

I like this idea. How do you practice this and keep your kid safe while allowing them to develop the critical thinking? You can't let them jump off a ledge to find out the consequence, so how do you keep yourself from stopping them? Do you just trust they will make the right/safe choice? I would like to know more.

Kerry said...

And there we have my resolutions for the upcoming school year--I want to eliminate (or, realistically, significantly cut down on) the number of times I say "Be careful," or "Use your inside voice."

And I completely agree about sarcasm--I don't think it's appropriate for adults, much less for little people.

Teacher Tom said...

@Tree . . . If any child, especially a very young one, is attempting to do something that is truly hazardous, I will say, "I can't let you do that," the proceed to not let them do that. I'm not commanding them, but rather acting/speaking out of my own responsibilities. Otherwise, I generally attempt to point out (humorously or earnestly) the potential hazards I see, then let them go for it. The only way they will learn to care for themselves is to practice caring for themselves.

Babyfriend said...

I love this attitude 😀
Children are capable of so much more strategic thinking and logic than people give them credit for.
Yes, sometimes they do seem to have an auto destruct button which is difficult for adult nerves to deal with, but you can either teach them obedience, as you say, or fear, neither of which will keep them safe in the long run, or you can teach them intelligence.
If you teach intelligence they will start to question the world around them, their place in it, and most importantly, the consequence of their actions.
My step daughter , 7 years old, had friends round and they were playing on the hay bales (not usually allowed unsupervised) so when I found them I told them to stop what they were doing for a moment.
I explained that they shouldn't be playing here because it could be very dangerous but, as you are having such a great game lets have a look and see if we can make it safe.
I explained that they had to check to make sure no sharp farm tools had been left in the hay ( I knew they hadn't, but they had a good time looking and it made a point), then we looked for anything they could bang their heads on, or any steep drops that would hurt if they fell off. They eventually spotted all the hazards and we moved extra bales to make it all safe, and I left them to carry on their game( whilst getting on with nearby jobs so I could keep an eye on them).
Hopefully they learnt the beginnings of Risk Assessment (but without all the red tape lol).....and I also got points for not being a spoilsport adult 😀
I know it is difficult when all you want to do is protect your child, but overprotection only works in the short term and as long as you don't ever take your eyes off them, which is impossible.
Your method offers long term protection, and teaches the child that you respect and trust them which is a wonderful gift.
Thanks for the post 😀
Sarah x

Anonymous said...

I really like the idea of letting the kids think and figure out how some of their activities might cause them to get hurt. I have some 5 & 6 year old boys that try crazy things. I'm going to use this instead of the standard "be careful"