One day, my son Henry flipped over the back of the couch and landed in a pile of stuffed animals. From 10 feet away, fiery hot anxiety coursed through my veins. But then he popped right up, cried a little, came running over to me, and I comforted him. In the months since, he hasn’t flipped over the couch again. I like to think it's because he's learned what happens when he leans too far over the back of the couch.
I think about words a lot. And becoming a parent has opened a whole new category of words for me to obsess over. I say things like, "don't touch that," "slow down," and "be careful" more than I've ever said them before. I know new motherhood (and motherhood in general) is about protecting our kids and teaching them what's best, but I was beginning to worry that I was quickly becoming too much of an overly cautious mom. In addition to my son, I noticed my days revolved around one phrase:
Running, jumping, playing, climbing — everything Henry did was an opportunity for me to rain words of caution over him. It started to irk me because I realized that saying those words wasn't actually doing anything. Henry didn’t suddenly snap to attention when “careful” passed from my lips. And he was never in grave danger to begin with. So what was I trying to caution him from? Living? Experiencing? Learning? When I started to analyze all the ways I cautioned Henry, I noticed something else, too: I almost always ask Henry to “be careful” when I'm not fully engaged with him. When he almost tripped over a curb on his way to catch a bug, I caught his hand and helped him stay upright. But when I was wrapped up making dinner or finishing an article, I'd call over to him, “careful!” almost without looking. It had become a lazy reflex. A placeholder to my parenting. And it needed to stop.
The experiment was to stop saying the phrase “be careful” for one week. I wanted to take a step back from trying to keep Henry from touching and tripping and falling and laughing and giggling. Of course, I didn't want him to get hurt, but I wanted to let him enjoy and experience the things that make being a kid so much fun. I also wanted to dial back all the times I disengage from him. So I decided that for a week, I'd stop being so overly cautious with my son.
Part of the experiment was also realizing I might fail. So I amended the rules to include this: As soon as I said “be careful” in an attempt to distract or correct Henry, I would stop and checked in instead: Why had I disengaged? Was Henry actually in danger? Was he getting into trouble because my attention was elsewhere? How could I find a solution for us both?
Here's what happened:
Day 1: My Own Parenting Fears
I know that caution isn’t a bad thing. There are many valid reasons why mothers don’t want their children to grow up to be Evel Knievel. For me, the problem with always being so careful doesn’t stem from a desire to keep my son alive; it’s something I say when I’m being lazy. That’s not the best way to teach care and caution. When I'm busy doing something else and my attention is split between my son and my work, I say "be careful." Saying it always makes me feel better about whatever Henry is doing, but I realize it doesn't help him at all. Henry runs full-speed through our living room and I call out those words and feel like I've done something. I feel like I'm "parenting," but those words do nothing to prevent Henry from getting hurt.
Anyone who's dealt with a toddler might laugh out loud when they read “thoughtful” and “19 months” in the same sentence, but hear me out. Yes, there are times I have to forcibly pry Henry off the table he climbed onto. No thoughtful decision-making discussion will convince him he shouldn’t be on that table. But I realized I'm stressing the importance of caution so that he'll hopefully hear me on some level and make decisions thoughtfully and take toddler steps to get there. Maybe then I won't feel so inclined to say "be careful" all the time.
I don’t want to raise a timid child. I want to raise a child who lives. So if Henry’s in danger, of course I intervene. Sometimes I replace "be careful" with "stop." And he stops. But when danger isn’t imminent, maybe his antics are just inconvenient, and maybe I should try to meet him where he’s at and live the adventure with him. I can explain that the slide is wet and if he goes down his pants will also – shocker – get wet. Whether or not he still goes down the slide is then up to him.
Day 2: Talking It Out
When I didn't have "be careful" to lean on, I had to find other ways to communicate to Henry why he shouldn't do something. He's still so young, but he already understands so much. Instead of relying on half-hearted advice, I decided to give Henry the full explanation. I saw it two ways: I can try to help Henry pause before he leaps, or I can help explain the natural consequences that come from jumping off the stairs instead of climbing down. It can seem a little crazy talking like this to a toddler, but it helped me form a habit of intention and explanation (instead of thoughtlessness and direction) that I ultimately hope will help his decision-making process.
I fully realize that the words “be careful” will begin to mean nothing if I use it too much. (And already, I am.) So I needed to practice making specific requests that are actionable. Instead of telling him to be careful when he was whacking at the cat with a stick, I asked him: “Please don’t hit anyone with that stick,” and took it if he didn't stop. When he slipped on his way up the ladder at the park, I didn't caution him to be careful. Instead I asked, “Can I help you climb up that ladder?”
I realized by showing him ways to get he wants, Henry was more purposeful in his actions. (I know, I know: How can a toddler be purposeful? Trust me. When they want something, they've got purpose, all right.) And it was a huge eye-opening moment: Talking to my toddler like he was a person and not a baby made all the difference. Sure, he doesn't understand lots of words just yet, but when I made an intentional to connect with him and to lay out the reasons why he couldn't do something, he was much more likely to hear me and understand.
Day 3: A Little Risk Is A Good Thing
Life requires risk, and asking my son to “be careful” all the time has limited that. Henry is so young and impressionable, and I don’t want to bombard him with fear-laden messages. I want him to discern from real and imagined fears – not just fear something because it's new or unusual. I want him to be excited and adventurous. To do that, I needed to dial it back.
In a person's first three years of life, their brain is filled with an excess of synapses. This makes our little kids extra responsive to external input. Negative influences and experiences can shape a child’s brain more drastically than when they’re older. Even though “be careful” can seem innocuous, if it’s repeated and repeated, it informs their brain. Henry's first three years are a wonderful opportunity for me and my partner to view life through the adventurous and fearless eyes of a toddler – and I realized I wanted to be the kind of parent that keeps watch but doesn't inhibit exploration.
After taking a deeper look at my own actions, I realized teaching Henry to be "careful" all the time was taking away the best part of his life: adventure.
Day 4: What Would My Mom Do?
I thought having three younger brothers who played like wild things prepared me for being a mother. But when it's my son rolling around like a puppy playing with another kid, it's hard to remain calm. How did my mom handle this? When one of my brothers would get hurt and come crying to her, she'd comfort him and remind him, "If you play big, you get hurt." But one day, when I was 8 and my brother, Aiden, was 5, he snuck outside. Eventually we found him in the backyard. He was dressed up in his SpiderMan costume standing on the edge of the deck, ready to “fly.” Somehow my mom talked him down and it's become a favorite family story.
Things would've gone much differently if he jumped before we got there or if he didn’t listen to my mom as she explained what would happen if he did jump. Maybe he had an inkling that he was embarking on treacherous territory and paused. Whatever the reason, Aiden trusted my mom when she told him to get down off the edge because she didn’t always rein him in. She let him be the great big bursting ball of energy that he was and only intervened when necessary. He listened because she didn’t just say “be careful”; she told him in no uncertain terms to get down or else he could get hurt.
As Henry gets bigger and more rambunctious, I see possibilities for hurt everywhere. But, as my mom did, I need to discern between the usual hurts and the big hurts.
Day 5: I Need To Cut Myself Some Slack
I remember hearing "be careful" many times as I went running off in the other direction as a kid. It never became something I hated to hear, and I knew it came from a place of care (even if it was sometimes a bit absentminded.) Now that I'm the parent I can rest in the fact that Henry will be just fine if he hears "be careful" now and then. One of the biggest lessons was learning that there's nothing wrong with urging my son to be careful when I feel he needs to be. Sure, he'll grow exhausted and bored by those words soon enough, but really, he's going to be exhausted and bored by just about everything I say in a few years.
Day 7: New Habits Take Time To Learn
... And old habits are hard to break. At the beginning of the experiment I thought, "How hard can it be to not say two words?" But as the week wound down and I slipped up a few times a day, I realized that if I wasn't careful I'd start beating myself up for no reason. Just as I was trying to exercise patience with Henry's endless zest for borderline dangerous play, I had to be patient with myself, too. I'm working really hard, every day. So is my husband. It takes so much effort to work, run a household, raise a child, and be married. The last thing I want to do is turn saying "be careful" into a failure.
Instead of berating myself when I slipped up, I viewed it as an ongoing project. I'm not perfect, and giving myself the space to make a few of my own mistakes was important.
Day 7: Is This Experiment Over Yet?
As parents, we're tasked with being the cautious ones when our children are growing up. Research shows that just before puberty, there's a second wave of synapse formation and subsequent pruning of lesser used synapses over the next few years. This happens in the area of the brain right behind the forehead that governs planning, organization, working memory, and mood. Some call this section (the prefrontal cortex) "the area of sober second thought." As the prefrontal cortex matures, teens show more reason and control over their impulses, but how long it takes is an individual process.
Basically, this boils down to one thing: I will be just as inclined to tell 15-year-old Henry to "be careful." In fact, he might need me to say it more when he's a teenager because he'll have more access and options to make decisions that have consequences.
I've Changed, But It's An Internal Difference
In the end, this experiment taught me about how I want to approach parenting and life in general. When I do say "be careful" I follow it up by stopping what I'm doing and getting down at Henry's level to see what he needs, at least 95 percent of the time. (I'm not perfect, OK?)
I still see every possibility for injury. I still want to hold my boy close and let nothing hurt him. I still flinch when he almost falls of the chair, the rocking horse, and on the first stair. I still catch him whenever I can and comfort him when he's hurt. And I don't plan to ever stop doing that.
Images Courtesy of Devin Kate Pope (7)