What happened when I stopped saying “Be careful”

Steve Calechman


December vacation was over. The weather had finally calmed down, and kindergarten was back on, so Milo and I were walking. He was ahead of me, as usual. His eyes were on a snow mountain that would soon be climbed, and not on a patch of ice. I decided to help out, and I did. I told him, “Be careful.”

One more time.

“Be careful” is what I said.

I’m gonna brag: it’s Belichick-level genius.

And it wasn’t my first time. I’ve broken out those three syllables with digging holes, riding a bike, sitting at the table, getting out of the tub, and probably eating a bagel, and I’m gonna brag again: I don’t think it’s ever led to any carefulness.

Helping your child negotiate risk

It shouldn’t be a surprise. Dr. Joshua Sparrow, child psychiatrist and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center based at Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital, says kids learn words through context. If they’re used in too many contexts, there’s no meaning. It doesn’t help that “Be careful” offers nothing to actually do.

So, I decided that for one week, I wouldn’t say those two words to my kids, Milo, 6, and Levi, 3. Instead, I’d strive for specific, possibly even helpful advice. Sparrow offered a couple of other helpful thoughts to consider before I opened my mouth.

  • Assess situations and ask, What’s the worst that could happen? A skinned knee doesn’t merit much warning.
  • There’s nothing wrong with eliminating unnecessary risks. e.g., standing on top of the coffee table.
  • Pay attention to what kids are capable of — their skills can expand in a matter of hours.

I needed that last one. During the summer, Milo was at the beach near our house and climbing along a stretch of rocks for the first time. I was simultaneously holding my breath and firing off “Be careful”s, and what I saw (but didn’t fully accept) was that he was keeping a low center of gravity and scanning where he was going to jump before he did.

So how did I do?

The simple answer is that my experiment was a success. By being conscious of wanting to do this, I chose my words. I slowed down; I shut up more. I was calmer, and I gave Milo some room. We went out on our bikes on Saturday morning of Day Two. Milo’s a good rider and the street was quiet, so I kept quiet. He fell, but he got back up and the ride continued.

When he was standing too close to the street waiting to cross, I leaned in and said, “Take a step back toward me.” I only had to say it once. When we were walking home from school — no sidewalks — and a car was coming from behind, I asked, “What do you hear?” He turned around and stepped up onto the grass.

I don’t know if I was building his situational awareness. Dr. Sparrow doesn’t know either, but because I was talking a lot less, it’s possible that Milo had less reason to tune me out. As Sparrow says, being heard is as much about delivery, tone, curiosity, and positive intent as any words.

On the other hand…

So overall, I’d love to say that the week was Father of the Year highlight reel stuff. But it wasn’t all that straightforward. On the afternoon of Day Two, Milo, Levi and I were exploring an old cemetery in town, walking up rocks in a gentle hill. It was nothing extreme. I wasn’t saying anything and everyone was being, yes, careful. I was holding Levi’s hand and then my outside foot slipped. I came down onto Levi, forcing him onto a rock.

He got a gash on his forehead, an emergency room visit, and four stitches. I know that it was an accident, which barely kept me from feeling completely awful. But after the cookies, popsicles, a few trucks, and a respite from hair washing, I saw that Levi was all right.

And I realized that it was an accident. It was an awful one. I’m thankful it was only four stitches, and I wish that it had never happened. But it did, as will others, and my kids can’t be kept inside until graduation.

That week, we were back to school. On Monday, Milo and I walked home, which turned into running. The other days, he biked both there and back. He knows the way and he knows that he has to look around before he crosses an intersection. I was behind him, and I shut up. He didn’t need the reminder.

Related Information: Your Successful Preschooler

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