what to say instead of “be careful!”

Welcome to Ithaca Montessori’s blog!  We are educators, parents, and allies of children, who are here to share and learn helpful, practical information to guide our everyday interactions with the young children in our lives.

I came across this thought-provoking article a few weeks ago about saying “be careful!” to children, specifically as it relates to playing outdoors.  It’s a short piece and worth the time to read it, but I’ll go ahead and summarize here:  saying “be careful!” is an understandable knee-jerk reaction that many adults have to children’s choices during play; however, adults can use more specific details to help the children understand the risks and consider their actions.  Here’s an example: a child picks up a big stick in close proximity to other children.  The adult can shout, “Be careful!”  Or the adult can say, “Sticks need space.  ___________, look around you.  Do you have enough space to swing that big stick?”  Or “What’s your plan with that big stick?”  The difference in the language is striking.

So while this article gives specific language around outdoor play, I wondered about all of the times I might say “be careful!” to a child engaged in other activities.  I only had to spend a day in a home environment with four children, ages 4 and younger, to become conscious of a myriad of other times that “be careful!” is my go-to phrase.  So here are some other specific examples that may be helpful to you, the reader.

Other language for children helping in the kitchen with meal prep or table setting or clean up:

“Don’t touch _____!  It’s hot!”

“Carry the plate/bowl/dish with two hands.”

“Set the glass down gently so it doesn’t break.”

“Carry one plate/bowl/dish at a time.”

“That cup of water is full. Hold it with two hands. Walk slowly.”

Children going up or down stairs:

“Hold onto the railing.” Or “put your hand on the railing.”

“Take the stairs slowly.”

“Look in the direction you are going.”

Children standing on step-stool to reach sink faucet:

“Keep both feet on the stool.”

“One person on the stool at a time.”

[Of course, we want to refrain from micro-managing the children in our care.  Hopefully we are also modeling the ways that we want them to interact with each other and their environment—i.e., holding the railing while taking the stairs and carrying plates with two hands.  We can also take the time to observe the children in our care to discern if their environment needs to be modified for them; for example: does the step-stool in the kitchen need to be replaced with one that is more sturdy or slip resistant?  Modeling and observing are hallmarks of a Montessori classroom—it’s what the Montessori guide (teacher) spends most of her/his time doing; and it may be helpful to delve into this topic in another blog post.]

We are all learning.  Here are some questions I can ask myself:

Instead of saying “be careful!” right now, what is a specific statement that I can say to this child?

What is the exact risk that I want the child to be aware of?  How can I say this in a concise way to the child?

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