Stop Telling Kids to Be Careful and What To Say Instead

Stop Telling Kids to Be Careful and What To Say Instead

As a parent of 2 young children, the daughter of a speech and language pathologist, and a former French Immersion classroom teacher, I am no stranger to thinking about language. I am interested in so many facets of it: how it develops, how it is imbued with culture, how words are selected to communicate ideas. This curiosity has me constantly tuning in to language around me and to my own language; particularly with respect to the words I use when communicating with my children.

I wish I could say that my parenting language is always well considered and reflective of the things I value as a parent. For all the effort I put in, there is still a significant gap between what I think and what I say; especially when it comes to risk and risky play.

I believe 110% in taking risks in childhood. I have read the research about the values of risky play and know that “keeping children safe involves letting them take and manage risks” (1). That said, as soon as I spot my child balancing along a craggy outcropping, I spout a slough of words that betray my deep belief in risky play. Ever present on the tip of my tongue, these phrases, while rife with good intention, negate the chance for my kiddos to discover their own limits. We all know these words, we’ve all used them:

Be Careful!

Watch out!


Look out!

Get away from there!

Thankfully, through free forest school, I have been learning a new language- one that is less alarmist and encourages thoughtful engagement in risky play. Below, borrowed from the backwoods mama blog (2), are some examples of the powerful phrases and questions that I have been hearing, and slowly adopting, as I become more fluent in this language.

Notice how… these rocks are slippery, the log is rotten, that branch is strong.

Do you see… the stinging nettle, your friends nearby?

Try moving… your feet slowly, carefully, quickly, strongly.

Try using your… hands, feet, arms, legs.

Can you hear… the rushing water, the singing birds, the wind?

Do you feel… stable on that rock, the heat from the fire?

Are you feeling… scared, excited, tired, safe?

What’s your plan… if you climb that boulder, cross that log?

What can you use… to get across, for your adventure?

Where will you… put that rock, climb that tree, dig that hole?

How will you…. get down, go up, get across?

Who will… be with you, go with you, help you if?

Not only has this new language had a powerful effect in shifting my thinking, but it has been transformational for my children. My daughters, both quiet and cautious in nature, are taking risks like never before. Week by week they are challenging themselves to reach new heights and are stepping into confident engagement with new friends and environments. I am so grateful for this opportunity to become fluent in a new language and appreciate how it helps in my ongoing parental conundrum of aligning what I think to what I say.


Brussoni, M. et al. (2012) Risky Play and Children’s Safety: Balancing Priorities for Optimal Child Development. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Pg 3134-3148