Telling your children to "be careful" may instill confusion and fear and lower their self-confidence. When watching your child engaging in a risky activity, you may feel compelled to call out "Be careful!" -- a phrase you may have often heard yourself when you were growing up.
Of course, most parents don't want their child to break an arm and end up in the hospital. However, the repetition of such parental admonitions can do more harm than good, and you should steer clear of this kind of common and often counterproductive warning. Why? First, when you say "be careful," most of the time, your kids are not even sure what they have to be careful about. It's an overused knee-jerk phrase often repeated in many situations -- when they're about to jump off a tree or simply take their fork -- which tends to lose meaning over time.
"Be careful!" is a signal of fear most of the time generated by our own anxiety that we pass down to our kids, inhibiting their good development. While they need to be aware of important risks, making them afraid of playing and other activities without important danger can lead them to avoid trying new experiences, thereby diminishing their self-trust. A study has shown that "imposing too many restrictions on children's outdoor risky play hinders their development."
When adults are too frequently intervening, kids miss important opportunities to learn how to manage risks themselves, a fundamental life skill. But what to say instead of "be careful!"? Young people are not known for making prudent decisions, so they need wise but sparse guidance and to be encouraged to develop situational awareness, access risks, and problem-solving skills without being afraid. So here is the first and main question to ask: Is there any risk of immediate serious harm? If this is not the case, resist the impulse to scream the robotic "be careful!" caveat.
Instead, tell your child: "I'm here if you need me." The best we can do for our children when there is no imminent danger of physical harm is to shut up. As difficult as it may be to watch our little ones doing something that may be dangerous, they need space and time to experience life's challenges on their own. This means WITHOUT mom or dad. You may tell them one more time: "I'm near if you need me." But then, please, get out of their way!
Picture: Kids climbing Panther Rock in Middlesex Fells, Massachusetts (Wikipedia, w/Effects)