Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Eleven Things To Say Instead Of "Be Careful"

In yesterday's post, I riffed on what is popularly called "risky play," what author and consultant Arthur Battram argues we should call "challenging play," what I want to re-label "safety play," and what one reader pointed out used to just be called "play."

Whatever we call it, readers overwhelmingly responded favorably to the notion that we need to give children more space to engage in their self-selected pursuits, even if they sometimes make us adults nervous, while at the same time expressing dismay at how difficult it is to break the habit of constantly cautioning them with "be careful." As I wrote yesterday:

Adult warnings to "be careful" are redundant at best and, at worst, become focal points for rebellion (which, in turn, can lead to truly hazardous behavior) or a sense that the world is full of unperceived dangers that only the all-knowing adults can see (which, in turn, can lead to the sort of unspecified anxiety we see so much of these days). Every time we say "be careful" we express, quite clearly, our lack of faith in our children's judgement, which too often becomes the foundation of self-doubt.

A couple readers asked about alternatives, such as saying, "pay attention to your body." For me, "pay attention" has the same flaws as "be careful." They are commands that give children only two choices -- obey or disobey. On top of that, they are both quite vague. Better, I think, are simple statements of fact that allow children to think for themselves; information that supports them in performing their own risk assessment. This reminds me of the "good job" or "well done" habit many of us adults have acquired, in that we know we ought not do it, but can't help ourselves. So, in the spirit in which I offered suggestions for things we can say instead of "good job",  here are some idea for things to say instead of "be careful."

"That's a skinny branch. If it breaks you'll fall on the concrete."

"I'm going to move away from you guys. I don't want to get poked in the eye."

"That would be a long way to fall."

"When people are swinging high, they can't stop themselves and might hit you."

"That looks like it might fall down."

"Tools are very powerful. They can hurt people."

"I always check to make sure things are stable before I walk on them."

"Sometimes ladders tip over."

"You're all crowded together up there. It would be a long way to fall if someone got pushed."

"When you fall on people, it might hurt them."

"You are testing those planks before you walk on them."

"That's a steep hill. I wonder how you're going to steer that thing."


One of my most important mentors, Tom Drummond, kindly chimed in on Facebook with a few suggestions of his own . . .

"You've got strong hands."

"I saw you pause to think about that first."

"You did it."


"Last year you couldn't manage to do that."

"It's amazing how much control you have over your body."

"Both dancers and rock climbers know balance is in the center of their bodies."

"It's called having a strong core."

"Two years ago a child was hurt when he forgot to look at what others were doing up where you are, so it's not just about you."

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Allie said...

This is so important - the language that we use with children should always be thoughtful. I think of this as an extension of the kind of "narrating" we do when we facilitate children's play/work in the classroom and outdoors. Adults have the best of intentions, but so often we just make rules about certain things to avoid the conversations all together. I really appreciate your opinions on this, and I definitely appreciate that after reading your post, teachers still need to stop and think critically about their choice of words in the situation they find themselves in with children. Cheers!

greyhoundgirl said...

Really like your view on safety/play/risk. And it's so great that the parents trust you and the kids enough to let it happen--I'll bet it was a steep learning curve for some of them!

Would you add a little more instruction and/or offers of help to younger kids--the older twos and the three-year olds? Or any kids who seem to have motor planning difficulty and might need extra help/practice? I'm thinking something like: "I always check to make sure things are stable--do you want me to help you to check?" Not taking it over for them but helping the ones who are new to it to practice--what do you think?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the namecheck. I should have said that the term "challenging play" is promoted by the excellent Rob Wheway.

I liked these:

"You've got strong hands."

"I saw you pause to think about that first."

"It's amazing how much control you have over your body."

Teacher Tom said...

That sounds fine, greyhoundgirl, if you're very concerned about injury. For the most part, however, we need to be willing to let even our youngest kids experience their falls (within reason, of course) because that's really how they learn to not do it again!

greyhoundgirl said...

Agreed about letting kids experience falls, etc. , thanks. And the other comments about narration remind me of a classroom where I was consulting the other day and as the kids walked down the steps the teacher was narrating how they walked: "Sari is walking slowly down the steps, Takashi is holding John's hand and being careful not to pull him down, Karen is holding the railing, Henry is hopping down the steps, Brayden is walking behind Fred, Sulu jumped from the bottom step.."etc. and it helped the kids be really mindful of where their bodies were, how they were using them, and where their friends were. Simple narrative description that I think helps them to stay aware of their bodies as they play and helps them to take risks more safely because of that awareness.

Akira said...

Dear Teacher Tom,
This is such an eye-opener. Thank you so much for writing this.
I think this this post would be very important that japanese parents (who we tend to be very restrictive) to know.

I would like to ask you if I could translate this post and present it on our website
With all credit to your site.

Best regards,

Akira Uchimura

Teacher Tom said...

Please do translate it, Akira. Thank you for your kind words.

Unknown said...

Awesome, I read your post avoiding the words "be careful" and while watching my kids put away the sharp knifes from the dishwasher I uttered "be careful", promptly gave myself a mental kick and immediately was stumped on what else to say.


CindyGE said...

You are holding the handles of the knife! I noticed!

Unknown said...

Thanks for this! as an occupational therapist, I see that your suggestions would help them develop praxis skills!

Kelly said...

It is good to see that allowing children to take risks is being encouraged. I had a childhood full of risk taking and it has allowed be to grow into a person who welcomes challenges instead of avoiding them.

Teacher Tom said...

CindyGE . . . I think you're commenting on a previous post, but no, I'm not holding the knife. There is a father steadying the pumpkin for the kids, but the saws are being used by the kids without adult help.

Sarah said...

I absolutely agree with your post and in being particular about the language we use around our kids. You knew there was a 'however' coming right? I've got 3 small kids and I am often so long-term tired that I can't remember the name of those things you put on your feet so they keep dry in puddles. Sometimes, in the heart of the moment, "Careful!" is the only word that comes! So I talk to the kids in quieter times about how "careful" is a code word for check you are thinking about what might happen next, and we talk about what risks might look like. So, is it wobbly, does that mean you can't walk on it, how do you walk on wobbly things, when do you decide not to try, is it worth a little try just to see. My eldest is naturally risk averse, so one of my home schooling targets for him is to give him strategies to help him try out new things despite his anxieties. I will be trying or some of your ideas, but I wanted to present another option for the sleep deprived with vocabulary that is floating just out of reach!

Unknown said...

Oh Sarah I hear you - yesterday "can you get .... that thing, your thing, for your head, keeps the sun off you, can u get it (hat!)". Happens too often! For me it's a combo of tiredness and too much in my head. Love this article, just re-reading as we start school hols. It requires slowing down, really being present for the kids and being more mindful of the kids than the to do list. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

thank you