Everyone knows the feeling of watching someone doing something that feels dangerous – maybe a child climbing a tree for the first time or jumping from a play structure. Your first instinct is probably to say "Watch out!" or "Be careful!", which is necessary in some situations to get the person's attention and keep them from hurting themselves. But with children, this can be an ineffective phrase – it's not specific enough to alert them to what the concern is, and depending on your tone of voice, it could just end up causing them to get scared or panic.
Of course, if the child is in immediate danger, responding quickly is understandable. But in cases where the child is just unaware of their surroundings and there is the potential for an injury, you can help foster their self awareness. Instead of using general phrases, you can use descriptive language that prompts them to reflect:
"Do you see the rocks on the ground? It's easy to trip on them."
"Notice how it's slippery from the rain."
"Do you feel the heat from the fire? That means you're getting pretty close to it."
This encourages them to think about where they are in space and what's going on in the environment around them. It also provides a specific point to focus on (e.g. the rocks, the slippery ground) rather than causing general fear.
Another great tool you can use is encouraging problem solving skills. Instead of immediately intervening or telling kids to stop doing something, ask questions that will make them think about the consequences of their actions:
"What are you going to use to get to the other side safely?"
"When you throw that rock, where is it going to go?"
"Do you feel ready to do that? Do you need... (a break, help, etc.)"
There is no perfect response that works for every situation, and at the end of the day, the person watching the child is the only one who can assess what action should be taken or what language should be used. But hopefully this post will give you some tips for the next time you have the urge to say "Be careful!" – if it's safe to do so, use it as a learning opportunity!
Stephanie. (2017, December 7). When you want to say, "Be Careful!". Child and Nature Alliance of Canada. https://childnature.ca/when-you-want-to-say-be-careful/.
Stop Telling Kids to "Be Careful" and What To Say Instead. Backwoods Mama. (2018, February 6). https://www.backwoodsmama.com/2018/02/stop-telling-kids-be-careful-and-what-to-say-instead.html.
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