If I had a toonie for every time I said “Be Careful!” to my kids, it could add up to a long weekend in Paris. And I haven’t stopped. With two adult offspring who both have their own kids and have so far neither set fires nor crashed cars, I still harass them to be careful.
Do they listen?
Did they ever listen to that?
And yet I persist. Let’s name that for what it is: Parental anxiety. From the moment our kids are born, we worry for their safety. And speak to them based on that worry. Not based on what they might be able to actually hear, take in and act on. We know that starting soon after the terrible two’s, kids tend towards self-determination and autonomy. Which are both fancy words for not wanting to do what their parents tell them.
How, then, can we be heard by our kids when we fear for their safety? First off, let’s expunge those two words from our kid lexicon. No more “Be Careful.” Because it’s too general, lacking specifics, and to them it sounds like: “I don’t trust you to make good decisions.” Because there’s no other info coming with that injunction. It would be far more useful to say: “Please don’t jump off the roof? You could get really hurt.” At least that’s specific.
But as a parental instruction it doesn’t go far enough into the territory where kids will be able to learn from it. If, before we instruct our kids, we stop and think about how kids learn best, we might strive for a more respectful way of warning them about dangers. Like asking questions – how we would say it to a peer. In my experience, that language lands better with kids. And helps them think. An important goal.
For example: If a small child is running fast on the sidewalk, and you fear they may run onto the street into the path of cars, instead of Be Careful, what happens if you say: “Can we talk a second? I notice you’re running really fast and I’m worried if you ran on the road, a car might come and hit you. What do you think about that?”
Or let’s say when snow happens your child wants to toboggan down a hill that you think is too steep…. Or has a fence to bang into? Let’s think longer term than today. How about growing a child who is a semi-professional risk manager? As in: You teach them to assess their own risk and make appropriate decisions. On the tobogganing hill, this parenting pedagogy sounds like: “Do you feel safe going down this hill? How about that fence down there? Do you think you can stop before it?”
Then close your mouth. Zip it.
In my experience as a mother, grandmother and camp director, this is the hardest thing to do. I love to lecture. Because I desperately want to keep them safe – all of them – by telling them what experience has taught me. But over and over, I am reminded by their behaviour that most humans have to learn the hard way – by experience.
It seems to help them learn when we introduce them to the idea of risk.. and of consent… by gently pointing out specific dangers and asking questions. Let’s say they’re playing with hockey sticks. You could ask: “That hockey stick is pretty long. Do you have enough room to swing it without hitting anyone?” Or they’re playing a little rough: “Are you still having fun, or is this a little too rough?… If it feels too rough, make sure you tell the other kids.”
It’s ironic that the hardest thing to do in so many of these parenting situations is to use our own impulse control and struggle to say less. Ironic why? Because the very thing we’re trying to teach our kids is to stop and think before they act. So it’s just another parenting opportunity to practice that old adage: Monkey see, monkey do.