“BE CAREFUL!”: Why this phrase may cause more harm than good

Years ago, before I had kids, in a magical time when my hair was always freshly highlighted and flat ironed and pureed foods sullied no part of my wardrobe, I was on the receiving end of some valuable wisdom from a preschool teacher while on recess duty.

A first grade student was running through the school’s metal playscape, playing tag with his friend. He was running at top speed while looking backwards at the kid who was “It” when he came within millimeters of flying off the side of a platform, a solid 4 feet up in the air. I was about to instinctively shout “BE CAREFUL!” as he almost ran right off the side, but the preschool teacher put her hand up and quietly said to me, “WAIT!”. Fortunately, I did. He narrowly missed the fall, correcting himself using some mid-air, course-changing move I’ve only seen Wile E. Coyote manage over a cliff, and jumped down. She calmly walked over to him and said, “You almost ran off that step. Look forward when you’re running.”

Her advice to me was, “Never shout ‘Be Careful’ unless you want to cause an accident”. Over the years of working in schools and seeing hundreds of kids on the playground every day, and now, having my own kids, it’s true. Shouting “Be Careful!” rarely actually causes kids to stop and be more careful. If anything, I’ve seen it cause kids to startle, lose focus, and fall. I never cease to be amazed by how well kids can react and compensate when climbing, jumping, and running. Seriously, watching a pack of second graders play “Let’s-pretend-the-woodchips-are-lava” can be like watching professional parkour.

If there is real danger, my colleague continued, simply yell “STOP”. If you can avoid yelling though, it’s much safer to calmly walk to the child, pause their game, point out the danger, and let them continue playing. Let me tell you, not shouting “Be Careful!” is about 900 times harder with my own children as a mother than it ever was as a teacher…but I really think it has helped prevent unnecessary falls.

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