Very early on in our parenting adventures, my husband and I decided to ban the words be careful from our collective vocabulary. We actually tried to ban our entire family from saying those words, but it turns out that saying “be careful” is literally embedded into grandmothers’ DNA and cannot be removed.
The final decision to delete these seemingly innocuous words came after a particularly harrowing day with our toddler son at the playground. He was at that age where he was testing the boundaries of everything — jumping off slides, riding the outer fence like a horsey, and basically using his body as a human pinball while running into everything and everybody. It was exhausting trying to keep up with him, but it was more exhausting saying “be careful!” every other second. I don’t even know where the words came from, it’s just like, I gave birth, that baby turned into a toddler, and then, one day, I opened my mouth and began to vomit the words be careful at my son every time he moved.
That day, he was being a human tornado, and I felt like I needed to show everyone around me that I knew that it was my job to attempt to mellow that shit down into a gentle breeze. People were staring, I was rattling off the correct safety precautions, and my son was completely ignoring me because I think he thought the words be careful actually meant go bigger.
The words themselves began to mean nothing to him; it was just like this constant clucking background noise that really said “I don’t trust you to know the limits of your body,” which, to be fair, I didn’t, but I didn’t want him to know that I thought that. I wanted him to figure out that he couldn’t fly all on his own, not because he didn’t try after I yelled at him to be careful.
Young grown-ups are suffering right now because of a whole generation of empty “be careful!”s. Of a generation of parents who stood over their kids making sure that their needs were being taken care of instantaneously, making them nervous Nellies who can’t find even find an instinct, let alone trust one. “Be careful!” is the helicopter parent’s war cry.
And I am not into that. I used to be, but I’ve since canceled that subscription.
Constantly shouting “be careful!” says, I’m here to guide your fun, your playtime, your autonomy. You don’t need to think for yourself, or make your own decisions about what is and is not safe. I’m the Decider. You are simply the tiny human who can’t be trusted.
The words are just space-fillers. So just say what you mean: Don’t touch that hot pan. Think about how far that jump is. Concentrate on the edge of the water. Don’t be a dumb-ass. Or sometimes, just say nothing. How hard would that be? To go to the playground and not give your child one word of advice on how they should roll through there (life-threatening and injuring-other-children situations excluded). It will probably be very hard at first. You’ll probably be choking back the words from the moment your kid’s foot hits the bark chips.
But it will be liberating too — for you and for them. They might jump, and they might fall on their ass and break their arm and then you’ll hate me.
But they might soar through the air and land on their feet and beam proudly. Who knows? But nobody is going to find out until you stop telling them to be careful all the damn time.
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