Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Things to Say Instead of "Be Careful!"

Registration is now open for the 2024 cohort for my 6-week course for educators and parents, Teacher Tom's Risky Play. Most of the time we refer to it as "risky play," although some have argued that it wold more accurately called "challenging play" or even "safety play." For many of us, it should just be called "play."

Whatever we call it, most people who read here agree that we need to give children more space to engage in their self-selected pursuits, even if they sometimes make us adults nervous, so we find ourselves constantly cautioning children to "Be careful!"

Most of the time, our warnings to "be careful" are redundant at best and, at worst, become a spur to 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 adult 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 for self-doubt.

Sometimes people ask me about alternatives, such as saying, "pay attention to your body." For me, "pay attention" has the same flaws as "be careful." They are both 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; specific 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 ideas 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 jump 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."

I'm sure you can think of more.

When we turn our commands into informational statements, we leave a space in which children can think for themselves, rather than simply react, and that, ultimately, is what will help children keep themselves safe throughout their lives.


"Be careful" is just the tip of the risky play iceberg. We live in an era of "bubble wrapped" children and helicopter parents, yet we know that healthy exposure to risk is essential for proper brain development, self-confidence, and physical competence, not to mention social-emotional and intellectual development. My 6-week course, Teacher Tom's Risky Play, is a deep-dive into the value and importance of risky play and an exploration of how we can overcome media fear-mongering and catastrophic imaginations, and work with regulators, to create "safe enough" environments in which the children in our lives can engage in the kind of healthy risk-taking they need to thrive, both today and into the future. This is the only time the course will be offered this year. To register and learn more, click here.

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