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Do we overuse the saying ‘be careful’ when talking to children?

Here are our ideas on what to say instead.

As adults, we often use the words ‘be careful’ when children start exploring, or when they are doing something for the first time. However, when we say ‘be careful’ we are being so broad and actually, very vague; it isn’t specific at all.

Saying ‘be careful’ actually infers that there is fear or danger ahead, but it doesn’t state what it is that is to be feared, so children may sense the fear and become apprehensive and unconfident. With this, there then comes the risk of developing an unwillingness to try new things and explore, at a crucial time when children must keep exploring in their own way to aid their growth.

As adults, who can effectively risk assess a situation without giving it much thought, we want to enable children to develop this skill for themselves. We want to encourage them to be aware of their surroundings and to independently problem-solve if they need to, to think for themselves if they see any risk, and most importantly to feel confident and safe in their surroundings.

Here are some great ideas for what we can use instead of simply saying ‘be careful’ because although we want our babies to stay safe, we also want them to develop initiative and independence. Next time you feel yourself instinctively wanting to say ‘be careful’, perhaps try one of the below:

Notice how… for example; Notice how these rocks are / that branch is strong / that branch is rotten/weak

By asking the children to ‘notice’, they begin to take note of and assess their environment, ensuring that better and more informed decisions can be made if they want to go ahead and explore- e.g. the strong branch would be a much safer bet for climbing or swinging on a tree as opposed to the weak and rotten one. If children begin to notice this, they can start to link all of this.

Do you see… for example; Do you see those nettles / your friends over there?

Again, this is encouraging the children to look at their environment and take it in before acting upon their instincts to explore.

Try moving… for example; Try moving your feet carefully / quickly

This encourages the children to think of and to start exploring their environment in different ways, depending on what might work best in that particular environment. For example, if they have been asked if they see the nettles, they may consider moving carefully and slowly, instead of quickly.

Can you hear…for example; Can you hear the rushing water / the singing birds / the wind?

By listening, children not only are using and exploring their senses, but they are also exploring their environment. They can begin to link the sounds to what is making them and then, as they develop begin to link certain sounds with certain risks- e.g. cars on roads.

Do you feel… for example; Do you feel stable on that rock / the heat from the fire?

By asking do you feel, you are letting the children consider their answer instead of someone telling them they may be at risk. By letting the children analyse this themselves, they start to develop an understanding of not only what may be a risk, but they begin to develop solutions to help themselves in those situations.

What’s your plan… for example; What’s your plan if you climb that log / those steps?

By asking children of their plans before they attempt it, they can think through what they will do if something goes wrong. Adults can also ask, what will happen if… so the child begins to think about different actions and different consequences in different scenarios.

What could you use.. for example; what could you use to get across?

Again, this question encourages the children to think through their plan before jumping right in. It forces them to analyse a situation and begin to consider how the situation may play out in front of them. It also encourages to use their imaginations and really consider their surroundings to see what could help them.

Take your time… for example; take your time stepping on the rocks / climbing the tree

This is far more specific than ‘be careful’; it implies that the child may come into danger if they rush, but if they take it slow then they can be in better control of themselves and the situation.

Before you use that… for example; before you use that stick and throw it, what do you need to look for?

Again, you are using your knowledge of risks as an adult and giving the child the time and space to do the same. Do they need to look out for people before throwing something, why might this be? Continue to ask those questions so that the whole time, the child is starting to understand the risks that may be involved.

We hope that these help you. We want children to continue to explore and to learn about the risks in their environment and we want to give them space to do this exploring and learning for themselves.

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