Should we stop telling children to be careful?
It just comes out, doesn't it? You start to get nervous when you see a kid doing something a little bit risky, maybe climbing higher up a tree or lifting a log for a den that looks just a little bit too heavy. You blurt out, “Be careful!”
Why do we do that? And what does it even mean?
The actions for taking care are vastly different according to each individual situation. The way a child takes care of themselves up a tree is very different from the way they take care of themselves while building a den, using tools, crossing the street, using the internet, you see where I'm going with this...
So why do we say it? Is the point just to get them to stop and think? Because we're definitely not giving them any specific information about what to do! The vagueness of it can actually be confusing for them. A recent conversation with a 7 year old girl proved this to me.
The girl wanted to use loppers to cut up sticks. I gave her a safety talk and handed them over. She treated them with perfect care, but a little while later asked me, “Am I being careful?” I replied, “Do you think you're being careful?” She said “I don't know.” This seems to me to be a good example of a child who's probably heard the phrase “Be careful!” many times, but doesn't truly know what it means. I took the opportunity to explore what it meant in relation to the activity she was doing and that's when more valuable information came out...
I said, “Let's think about it, what are you doing to keep yourself safe?” She said, “I'm walking, not running, I'm using them a safe distance from other people, I'm putting them away when I'm done and not leaving them on the ground.” I replied, “So would you consider that being careful?” She said, “Yes.”
I wonder whether our motivation for saying “Be careful” is more for our own sake than the child's - do we say it to express our own nervousness? Does it make us feel better that at least we said something? Because often, when we say the phrase “Be careful!” to children they are already being careful.
For example, I heard myself say it while watching a boy climb higher up a tree. I started to feel nervous and it just came out of me. But when I stopped to notice what he was actually doing I could see that he was already taking great care. He was testing all the branches, he was hanging on really tight, and he was moving slowly and thoughtfully.
At a conference I went to recently Tim Gill (2017) brought up a really interesting point about the messages we send to kids when we tell them to "be careful" when they are already being careful. Gill argued the phrase can mean a couple of different things to the child. It might make them think:
“I've missed something” or
“You silly adult. I'm already being careful, why can't you see that?”
Neither of these messages are very useful and, in fact, can actually be harmful. The first one can result in the child shifting their focus towards trying to interpret what is is you think they've missed instead of concentrating on what they were doing. This could make them more likely to have an accident. The second one may lead the child to lose respect for your comments or opinions because they don't trust that you actually understand what they are doing (Gill, 2017).
So, just because children are doing something risky doesn't mean they're not being careful. It is our responsibility to resist the urge to tell them to be careful unnecessarily.
But how do we manage the impulse to say it? Well I suggest first taking a moment to notice whether they've actually truly missed something. If they have and you feel it is necessary to point it out, try giving them more specific information about what they've missed. The blog Teacher Tom (2015) has a really great article about alternatives to using the phrase "Be careful" which you can find here. If you realise they actually already are being careful, consider whether it's necessary to say anything at all. It might not be!
I've made a real effort to do this recently and there was a moment the other day that really challenged me to stop and think before I blurted out... you know what...
There's a boy that is absolutely fascinated by fire and can easily spend a whole 2 hour session every week lighting the fire, adding wood, and experimenting with the way different things burn (like reeds from the pond, leaves, and moss). The other day he was putting the end of a stick in the fire and then pulling it out again to watch the embers. Sometimes he would carry the stick over to a bucket of water and dunk it in to listen to it sizzle. He left one stick burning for quite some time and I knew it would be really hot. He started to reach for it and I nearly said something, but forced myself to wait just a second longer. Then he stopped himself, grabbed a protective fire glove, put it on his hand, and picked up the stick to take it to the water bucket...
Gill, T. (2017) Rethinking Childhood, Buckinghamshire Forest School Conference, 18/03/17, Chalfont St. Giles.
Teacher Tom (2015) Eleven Things to Say Instead of “Be Careful”, http://teachertomsblog.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/eleven-things-to-say-instead-of-be.html?m=1, 06/04/2017.