Be Careful with “Be Careful”

I have been giving the phrase “be careful” a lot of thought lately. This was triggered by a moment I had with a 9 year old boy. We were making sloppy joes together and the boy was taking a turn stirring the ground beef, onion, and bell peppers in the pan, on the stove. While he was stirring, I had the overwhelming urge to tell him “Be careful!” But, before I blurted it out I paused to think to myself: Why do I need to tell him to be careful? He knows the food is supposed to stay in the pan and not go all over the stove. Then I realized, to my horror, I was using this phrase for my own needs—to calm myself over the possibility of ground beef and chopped veggies becoming confetti all over the stove top.

Ever since, I have become painfully aware of how many times children are told to be careful, in all of its many forms (yes, “don’t drop that” is the same thing as “be careful”). It can come at an astoundingly unnecessary frequency and in unnecessary moments. With that, I can’t help but think we are running around telling children “be careful!” in order to calm ourselves as we warily trust children with tasks that can end in messes, broken materials, owies, or tears.

Yes, it’s true, the phrase “be careful” can be informative and protective if a child genuinely does not know it is necessary to proceed with care (or when kids become too excited to control their own impulses). It can also communicate love and care for someone’s well being. However, when used in response to our own angst, this phrase becomes problematic.

When we do so, it communicates that we don’t trust the child and don’t believe the child is capable, and it oh so important for us to communicate that we believe in our cherished little ones (and big ones). A child’s sense of self develops within interactions with others. I like to think of it this way: What do children learn about themselves through their interactions with us? So, when interacting with children we must communicate: you are capable, be courageous, I believe in you, and believe in yourself. When we unnecessarily tell a child “be careful!” we communicate the opposite.

So, the next time you feel the urge to tell a child “be careful,” stop for a moment and ask yourself: Am I saying this because the child really doesn’t know to be careful in this situation, or is it because I am feeling nervous about a possible mess, broken dish, or injury?

Ps…give the child some credit. They know more than we think they do and they are capable of more than we know. They just need to opportunity to show us. As Janusz Korczak once wrote: “The oldest underdog in the world it the child.”