Be Careful!

In a mothers group we were trying to figure out how best to protect our children from potential dangers--falling from heights, choking on foreign objects, etc. We're all faced with this dilemma very early. They start putting things in their mouths. What is safe to put in a mouth and what is not? They start crawling. Where is it safe to crawl? They start climbing. What can be safely climbed? They start walking. Where can they safely walk? And that's just the beginning.

It's a hard area to think about. Children have really and truly gotten killed by swallowing balloons, falling from high places, drowning in bathtubs. And we certainly don't want our children to die--or, even worse, to be responsible for their death. Yet we can't protect them completely from every situation that has, at one time or another, caused the death of a child. Most of us make some kind of an uneasy compromise--trying to shield them from some dangerous situations, urging them to take care in others. "Be careful" is a phrase that comes out of all of our mouths a lot.

As we thought about it, however, we wondered if our children were ever really helped by our saying "Be careful!" Often the emotional content of the message is quite clear: "What you are doing/about to do is scaring me. It feels dangerous." But what is the actual informational content of that phrase? Be careful in what way? What do I do differently if I'm being careful?

There are situations in which we can, indeed, give useful information. "The steps are slippery so hold on to the railing." ""Be sure your top foot is secure and you have a good grip with your hands before you climb higher." "You have to make sure that no cars are coming from either direction before you cross the street." "If you're going to swing that long thing, you have to keep farther away from everybody else than twice its length."

It's easier to make good use of someone's information than of their fear. When a person around me that I count on is scared, I'm likely to get scared myself, thereby blocking up my own good thinking. Or, alternatively, I totally reject their fear and everything associated with it, thereby losing access to whatever information they might have. My guess is that our children do the same.

Furthermore, a pervasive tone of "Be careful!" communicates an attitude toward life. What happens when we give our children the message that it's best to hold back, to approach everything with great caution, to limit oneself to situations where the course is clear and the results guaranteed, to always go slow, to choose paralysis over risk? Our children are likely to either embrace that attitude fully or reject every part of it. What a choice--children who are chronically scared, or chronically drawn to danger!

Luckily, of course, there's lots of space in between. A few "be carefuls" never hurt a child. And, as a warning of imminent danger or a reminder to keep thinking, it's better than nothing. As our children get a little older we can also be more up front about our fears, letting them know the times when we are not sure about the reality of danger but just know that we are scared. That in itself can be useful information to them. It explains why we are acting that way, and signals that we're counting on them to use their own judgment.

Most of all, we can learn by watching our children. What actually happens when something goes into our child's mouth? When they want to crawl down the steps (the nightmare of a crawler's mother) what do they actually do? When they are climbing the jungle gym, how much balance, coordination and judgment of their own abilities do they show? Of course it makes sense to watch from close enough that we're in a position to help out if they get into trouble. But they may not. And we'll gain invaluable information about what they can safely do--and what they cannot (which may be quite different for different children). Then we're in a much stronger situation to offer them individually-tailored help that is more precise and usable than "Be careful!"