Magic Words #1: Be Thoughtful about that Sheer Drop

SBJ enjoying climbing down the stairs. Then up the stairs. Then down the stairs.

When my baby started moving around and exploring, I heard myself saying ‘Be careful!’ an awful lot.

My husband and I are pretty relaxed about SBJ taking risks and maybe getting a bit bumped. We don’t make a fuss if he falls over (when he falls over) and mostly neither does he. Our standard has developed from my husband’s work in emergency departments. We’re very careful about carseats, heaters, baths, that sort of thing. But if SBJ is doing something that looks a bit dodgy, and the dad says ‘kids don’t turn up at hospital having done that’ then we tend to let gravity take its course.

It’s totally fine if this is not be your standard! But it works for us (though I’m obviously over-simplifying).ย We’ve taken note of the downsides of helicopter parentingย (ain’t that just a whole nother post), and we’ve decided to encourage SBJ to explore and be adventurous rather than aim for caution. His dad and I are both quite cautious people (in some ways) and we’d love to foster a bit more boldness in him.

So I decided that ‘Be careful!’ was not the message I wanted to send. Not 134 times a day.

The moment SBJ’s experimenting with standing in a highchair crossed the line into foolishness. A second later he tries to dive off and his dad catches him.

Perhaps as a vestige of my native extraversion, I talk to SBJ all the time. When I spent a morning at home by myself recently, I found myself commentating my actions out loud as usual, much as parents of newborns often rock gently from side to side whether there’s a baby in their arms or not. I told the empty house, ‘I’m just going to put the washing on, but I don’t think I’ll hang it outside today. It looks like it might rain.’ Then I realised I didn’t have an audience.

I’m constantly talking to SBJ; a mixture of commentating what we’re doing and more direct conversation. I need to have language about risk-taking that I can use for the vast proportion of the day that he’s pushing his limits.

I’ve said beforeย that our big hopes for SBJ are that he grow to beย kindย andย wise. I want him to take risks and push at his limits, but I want him to have his brain engaged, too. So now when he’s trying something new or tricky and I’m commentating, I’m replacing ‘careful’ with ‘thoughtful’ and ‘sensible’:

‘Be a bit thoughtful about how you’ll get down, ok?’

‘I want you to be sensible about that ledge and have a look first (!)’

I think a lot about language. I often thought of my role as a pastor as one of giving people language for new ways of living, thinking, relating. If you can say things out loud, articulate emotions, expose unconscious attitudes and give them names, you can enable real change.

Words matter, and are formative, so I think hard about the ones I use with children. Most parents do.

So this series is a chance to share some ideas about how to speak with our kids for maximum impact. I wrote a quick list this afternoon of a dozen words or phrases that I have consciously adopted with our toddler and other kids I spend time with. Some of them are from my parents, some from observing other parents I admire, some from books, and the odd one I get sole credit for.

They’re the product of my our values, the kind of child SBJ seems to be, and a million other factors, so I’m definitely not presenting them as perfect language for all children or parents. I’m just getting the ball rolling. ‘Be careful!’ might be a perfectly appropriate and important phrase in your house!

Over the next while, pay attention to what you say to kids, and note down your gems, the things you are proud of saying regularly and intentionally. Think about why they work for you. We’ll go one situation or interaction at a time (eg, toilet-training, internet usage, praise, apologising), and share ideas.

So today it’s about the tensions between being careful and taking (appropriate) risks.

What language do you use to help shape your kids’ experience of hurting themselves or doing things that stretch them?

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0 comments on “Magic Words #1: Be Thoughtful about that Sheer Drop”

  1. Alex Reply

    Oh gosh, another great post. I hear myself saying “be careful!” an awful lot to our two, and I cringe inwardly almost everytime I say it. My husband – if he’s in earshot – frowns at me too. He has a much more relaxed (and healthier) attitude to our children taking risks.
    Our son is still quite melodramatic when he falls over or hurts himself, which is probably a reflection of too much fussing on my part in the early days. His little sister is far more cavalier, which I think is part her nature, and part a reflection of a conscious effort to make less of a fuss.
    On a separate matter, I know I say “be good” to our son way too often when I leave him at pre-school – I hear the other parents saying “have fun” to their offspring, and every time I think “yes, that’s a much better message to leave your child with”. I am now consciously trying to at least combine the two, even if I can’t quite make myself drop the “be good” entirely.
    I’ll keep listening to myself over the next few days and see if I have any better examples to share.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      SBJ is very robust and resilient about all the falling over malarkey, but I hesitate to ascribe too much of that to our attitude. I’m sure it has some influence, but I think you’re right about kids just being different.

      ‘Be good’ – ooh, yes, that’s on my list to talk about!

      I’m inspired (thinking of kindy drop-off scenes) by Paul Windsor’s mum – I’ll see if I can find the link… Yep, here it is (Paul was Principal at Carey when I was there – wonderful man.)

  2. Frank Reply

    I don’t use “be careful” either and I cringe when other people say it to Lachie – or when they protect him from minor bumps. I also don’t tend to rescue him if he’s stuck, but wait for him to figure out a way to get free, unless I can see it’s impossible for him.
    This is my phrase book:
    “Think about…”
    “Be aware of…”
    “See how close you are…”
    “How are you going to get down/climb up etc?”
    “You’re up high/ close to the edge!”
    “Remember last time you…”

    If he’s standing on a chair or something, I’l often show him the edge of it and tell him to be aware that is where the chair stops. He’s into climbing right now, and often tries to climb on things that would tip, I generally show him how they tip, then let him get on with it.

    When he has hurt himself, I have a couple of rules for myself. If he doesn’t cry when he falls etc, I just say “you went donk!” and he often will laugh. If he cries, I try not to say “you’re okay” or anything like that. I say what happened then I try to show him (act it out). I think often kids cry more from confusion or fright than actual pain, and I hope by showing him, he may be more careful (thoughtful?) next time. It usually stops him crying too.

    How do people deal with others not letting your child do things you know they can do safely? For example, Lachie usually walks down stairs without holding anything – which freaks people out who are used to babies crawling backwards. I get people rushing to stop him all the time, even though I know he can do it safely. Often even when I’ve already told them he can do it safely.
    Things I try to say are:
    He knows how to do….
    He might hurt himself the first few times, but then he’ll figure it out.
    He’s okay.
    Just watch and see how he goes.
    Or – if it’s another parent who I know won’t freak out by me saying this- If it doesn’t require a trip to A&E, I’m okay with a little hurt.

    Most of the time though, these things don’t work and I don’t know what to do next without coming across like a crazy Mama bear. In fact, Thalia, it’d be great if you could do a post on how to respond to people doing/saying things to your child you disagree with. My particular bugbear is people telling Lachie he’s a good boy because he’s eating his food. Or tickling babies. Or… or…

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Great phrase book, Frank, thank you for all those ideas.

      I really like your insight about re-enacting so they know what happened. Brilliant. I often say what happened – just out of the commentating habit of generally trying to put words to his experiences and what we’re doing. But I think re-enacting is better – what a great idea.

      Ooh, you’ve made my day asking me to do a post on something! I am giving it lots of thought.

      • Frank Reply

        I should have put with my phrase book, that I watch my tone as well when I say these things- trying to aim for a conversational tone rather than a watch out/be careful tone

  3. Angela Reply

    Ah, fascinating. There is much to be written on the topic of risk taking, and on the topic of the language we use, but let’s stick to the combination for now! Looking forward to more from you on these T! I, too, was determined to let Reuben take risks and felt strongly about it before he was even born. I have fought very hard not to use “be careful,” though sometimes it really has to be swallowed down, as it is hard to restrain that protective instinct. Other phrases I use intead are not coming to mind just now (perhaps I should have done the set homework before I commented sorry…) but it does occur to me that saying nothing at all often has its place – perhaps when they are a little older.

    I am interested in the habit most of us have of making light of falls and bumps. Some people in R’s life give an extra loud laugh just to ensure he laughs along with them, or at least doesn’t cry. But he *never* overreacts to falls and bumps, not even when he was really small, so it is not necessary for others around him to “train” him like this (I know other children can be different). When he cries it’s because he really needs to, and allowing him to express how he is feeling (and not having it shut down by others) is way, way, way up there in my priorities.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Yes, I’m very happy saying nothing (!) later on – and I love SBJ’s godparents’ habit of saying a fairly (to the adults) expressive ‘Mmmm’ when suppressing other comments. At the moment I just talk all the time as a language development kind of thing (not that it’s quite that conscious).

      I’m so with you on expressing feelings. Another series of posts, right? ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. jd Reply

    If they are likely to hurt themselves not very much – on reflection, I think I usually just say nothing. I have had to explain to a number of very cautious relatives that they have “an excellent sense of balance so they probably won’t fall off” as they running across the room shouting “noooo!” as they climb on to the sofa.

    If they are likely to hurt anyone else it is a different level of caution. This, along with hurting themselves seriously (e.g. burns / roads) are two hard boundaries that I have and I will intervene with an explanation and alternative.

    If they hurt themselves I usually point out how it happened “you’ve hurt yourself doing X”. In particular I’ve tried to get the oldest used to the idea that falling off and hurting yourself is what you have to suffer to get good at using the scooter / run fast / have fun in the playground / etc.. and we talk about times when they fell off but afterwards were much better at that activity. The youngest and I both point accusingly at the object which caused the pain – wall, floor, table, etc. – while they are crying which they now do automatically.

    In other people’s houses we try to follow their rules. Regardless I try not to contradict other adults especially in front of children even if I disagree with them – we all have our different approaches and it’s hard enough trying to work out what do with my own… although to date I’ve been lucky not to clash with e.g. a stranger with extremely different views.

    • jd Reply

      Well an interesting day today where I had to eat some of my words :-).

      I noticed myself saying the equivalent of “be careful” quite a few times ! When they were going to hurt each other. In the high chair. ( “sit down or you’ll fall out and hurt yourself” but its just longhand for “be careful”). And also when walking along a busy road.

      I do sometimes wonder whether its irrelevant whether a short or long version of “be careful” is given. While I try to explain my thinking to them, on a bad day I wonder whether everything I say just sounds like “blah blah blah” to the children regardless of how its put.

      On the point of contradicting other parents … I also had my first experience of really properly telling off someone else’s child who was running amock. I would have felt guilty had he not brazenly kicked my child’s groin three times leaving them crumpled in tears. I looked around to identify the mother – could not – then set him straight as I would were he my own child. (He apologised.) I was bracing myself for a confrontation but the parent didn’t even notice so no-one to answer to! He also hit two other children within about 10 minutes so, was told off by their parents too, and the parent still did not notice, so I didn’t feel too bad. I hope other parents would do the same with my child if this situation were reverse but I would be completely mortified if it happened and backing them up!

      Regardless of my approach to risk, I have many attributes I’m not proud of and am trying not to pass on to my children – impatience, anxiety, insensitivity to name but a few. Since these caused me a lot of bother growing up I do worry about passing on this genetic and environmental inheritence. The way I look at it my child gets a particular parenting cocktail – unique but not better or worse – I have enough trouble trying to work out what that cocktail should be without judging others.

  5. Jody Kilpatrick Reply

    Well! A great topic and one I think about lots. I have composed a long reply in my mind over the last couple of days, however it would just read defensively. So I will humbly confess: I am THAT mother :/

    • Alex Reply

      Thank you, Jody, for making me feel less alone! I’ve been listening to myself all week, and I don’t seem to be able to stop myself telling my two to be careful… I’ve not been able to substitute any of the alternatives suggested above; the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether at this age there is actually much of a difference (to a child) between them anyway. So I think that, for now at least, I’m going to carry on urging caution, where I feel it is appropriate, and will try to feel more comfortable doing so.
      I am grateful, though, to have been given the impetus to stop and think about it and make a more conscious decision.
      I’d love to read some of your longer reply sometime, if you ever feel like sharing it.

      • Jody Kilpatrick Reply

        Ok, here’s my longer version with the disclaimer that I know it sounds defensive and I also really admire the approach of parents like Thalia and others who have commented, because there is bound to be something about the fearlessness that it nurtures that carries over into other aspects of life ๐Ÿ™‚

        Basically I have just concluded that there are so many aspects of parenting well that don’t come naturally to me and require lots of effort on my part that I have consciously decided to let myself off the hook of actively encouraging physical adventurousness: the distance from my comfort zone would require so much self soothing I’d be too preoccupied with myself to enjoy hanging out with my boy.

        I guess because I don’t admire physical intrepidity (the way I admire generosity or tenacity for example) I knocked it off the list of things I prioritise nurturing. This is where I sound defensive because I don’t really value diggers but am fine to nurture my son’s love of them ๐Ÿ™‚

        Like you Alex I don’t think switching to one of the less loaded phrases (than “careful”) would make much difference to my two year old – he’ll still get the message that I’m not relaxed enough to let him go for it and mind my own business! I think this is a critical difference – whether a parent can genuinely reduce their own anxiety or not.

        I am someone who believes strongly in teny tiny statistical possibilities. What are the chances my son will get closed head injury from falling off the back of the sofa? Not very high presumably, but I’d rather not beat the odds on that one.

        My ultimate would be a genuinely relaxed approach but since I don’t have that, and can’t do the necessary therapy in time to develop it, I work at encouraging self confidence and self differentiation and not-people-pleasing in the hope that what I quell in the physical realm I make up for in the emotional realm.

        I definitely take the point that it’s unhelpful for other parents if I put any of my caution-values onto their kids, and I do try hard not to do that ๐Ÿ™‚

        • not a wild hera Reply

          Wow. I’m so pleased I never got typing space to jump in here before you two came (carefully) out of the closet. Thanks for saying all of this!

          I hope I was clear (I’m not saying you think I wasn’t) that avoiding saying ‘be careful’ is something we think is appropriate for our family, our parenting and our child, and I am not at all trying to evangelise y’all on this point. I think the first few people to comment just happened to have overlapping approaches.

          So it’s extra great that you two have thoughtfully added your different thoughts. I really hope other parents reading the thread will find someone to relate to and some helpful reflections on the position that feels most comfortable for them.

          Jody, I think the point you make about picking your battles in terms of what will stress you out as a parent is so important. And the very wise words about self-differentiation (that cautious and heedless parents and kids alike need to manage) are very helpful.

          So, thanks again, Jody and Alex. Keep bringing the full range of views, please, everyone!

        • Alex Reply

          Thanks for taking the time to write that Jody – a lot of it struck a chord, and was more eloquently (and less defensively!) put than anything I had come up with.

  6. not a wild hera Reply

    Also, i appreciate the point that several of you make about how much difference our carefully chosen words make to our toddlers. Of course my choice to say thoughtful rather than careful makes little difference right now – to my baby anyway!

    But I do think that whatever we get in the habit of saying to young children is likely to spill over into our more intelligible exchanges later on, and with something like this issue, I’m coaching my (naturally cautious) self as much as him.

    And many parents of toddlers have had the jolting experience of one day being answered by a child when they thought they were basically talking to themselves. One day he’ll get it, and I won’t know in advance, so I’m getting in early ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thank you, all, for the serious thought and well-considered contributions! This bodes well for the continuation of the series!

  7. Alex Reply

    We were outside playing in what’s left of our icy snow this morning. My two year old decided to clamber up onto the little wall that runs along the back of the grass and walked along it declaring loudly “I be careful” before executing a perfectly thoughtful dismount.
    My work here is done! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  8. not a wild hera Reply

    SBJ has a new obsession with opening and closing things – doors, drawers, the dishwasher. So I now find myself saying – A LOT – ‘mind your fingers…’

    Which I hope is a happy medium!

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