Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Teacher Tom: Ideas for What to Say Instead of "Be Careful"

Teacher Tom: Ideas for What to Say Instead of "Be Careful"
Ideas for What to Say Instead of "Be Careful"

Awhile back, I riffed on what is popularly called "risky play," what author and consultant Arthur Battram argues we should call "challenging play," what I want to re-label "safety play," and what one reader pointed out used to just be called "play."

Whatever we call it, most people who read here agree that we need to give children more space to engage in their self-selected pursuits, even if they sometimes make us adults nervous. At the same time, it can be difficult it is to break the habit of constantly cautioning children with "Be careful!"

Adult warning to "be careful" are redundant at best and, at worst, become focal points for rebellion (which, in turn, can lead to truly hazardous behavior) or a sense that the world is full of unperceived dangers that only the all-knowing adult can see (which, in turn, can lead to the sort of unspecified anxiety we see so much of these days). Every time we say "be careful" we express, quite clearly, our lack of faith in our children's judgement, which too often becomes the foundation for self-doubt.

Sometimes people ask me about alternatives, such as saying, "Pay attention to your body." For me, "pay attention" has the same flaws as "be careful." They are both commands that give children only two choices -- obey or disobey. On top of that, they are both quite vague. Better, I think, are simple statements of fact that allow children to think for themselves; specific information that supports them in performing their own risk assessment. This reminds me of the "good job" or "well done" habit many of us adults have acquired, in that we know we ought not do it, but can't help ourselves. So, in the spirit in which I offered suggestions for things we can say instead of "good job",  here are some ideas for things to say instead of "be careful."

"That's a skinny branch. If it breaks you'll fall on the concrete."

"I'm going to move away from you guys. I don't want to get poked in the eye."

"That would be a long way to fall."

"When people are swinging high, they can't stop themselves and might hit you."

"That looks like it might fall down."

"Tools are very powerful. They can hurt people."

"I always check to make sure things are stable before I walk on them."

"Sometimes ladders tip over."

"You're all crowded together up there. It would be a long way to fall if someone got pushed."

"When you jump on people, it might hurt them."

"You are testing those planks before you walk on them."

"That's a steep hill. I wonder how you're going to steer that thing."

When we turn our commands into informational statements, we leave a space in which children can think for themselves, rather than simply react, and that, ultimately, is what will help children keep themselves safe throughout their lives.


"Be careful" is just one of the ways that well-intended adults, through the words we habitually choose, create a reality for young children in which they are discouraged from, and sometimes even "punished" for, thinking for themselves. In so many ways, both overt and subtle, adults unwittingly tend to shut down critical thinking, replacing it with a reality in which mere reaction and obedience is rewarded. 

If you are keen to dig deeper into this phenomenon and to learn how you as an educator or parent can transform your language in ways that empower real learning, then my new six-part e-course, The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, might be a great way to start your New Year. This is the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. Special pricing ends soon. To learn more and to register, click right here. We need more critical thinkers in the world! Thank you.