The Most Useless Phrase in a Parent's Vocabulary

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Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

The moment my daughter was able to move about on her own, two words have continually escaped my lips, sometimes without me even thinking before saying them.

“Be careful!”

Everything seemed like a potential place to fall or collide into something. Running on the sidewalk in flip-flops, walking on top of a tall concrete wall along the sidewalk, or sprinting downhill, I’d call out my warning even if she was being perfectly safe about it. “Honey! Be careful!”

One day as she tottered along the wall, I stopped to ask her, “Do you know what it means when I tell you to be careful?”

My daughter looked at me and shrugged. “Don’t fall?”

It had no meaning for her. So I adjusted my tactic, thinking that somehow if I said the right thing, I could prevent anything bad from happening to her. After all, “be careful” was practically useless—of course she still wiped out and toppled over no matter if I yelled it or not. I aimed to be specific instead. “Don’t touch that, it might be sharp!” “Look at where you’re running!” “Go slow and watch where you place your feet!”

I succeeded in avoiding the phrase, but the message was still the same. Use caution. Don’t get hurt. Don’t take risks.

Recently, I came across an article on exposing kids to risk and “anxiety-based” parenting, and realized injury-prevention expert Mariana Brussoni was describing me:

We have this growing movement to what I call anxiety-based caregiving–caregiving where decisions about childhood and what children need are made based on anxiety, rather than stepping back a bit and thinking about what might be best for child development. You’re in a playground and you hear, “Be careful!” “Get down!” “Watch out!” Those are things that are based on anxiety, not on stepping back and thinking: What does the child hear when you’re saying those things? What the child hears is: “The world is a dangerous place. You don’t trust me to navigate that world. I need you to take care of me; I can’t be independent myself.”

And so I’ve resolved to make another effort to adjust my over-cautioning, this time to eliminate the warnings unless they’re absolutely necessary. I’ve got to trust her to find her own footing, even if she falls. She’ll pick herself back up again.

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1 thought on “The Most Useless Phrase in a Parent's Vocabulary

  1. The other most uselss phrase uttered by parents world wide is “good job.” At least “be careful” has some direction suggested, inciting a pause among those communicating. Dont be too hard on yourself for that one.

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