Spending time with your children in the great outdoors comes with many associated risks. Of course, we manage those risks because we, as outdoor-loving parents, see the overwhelming benefit of outdoor adventure, exploration and play. However, something recently struck a chord with me. As an English teacher, I’m always very analytical about the language that I use in my professional setting, making it as specific and supportive as I can. But, it seems, when I’m outdoors with my own children, I’ve started to note an over-reliance on one particular phrase: “be careful”. Once I’d noticed my overuse of it, I couldn’t escape it. I immediately realised that it was too broad a term. It’s vague enough for my kids to think of literally anything around them (or, of course, nothing at all). This is when I realised: saying “be careful” could actually be unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst.
First, an example: our son sees a large boulder, approximately 8 feet high and 8 feet wide. The boulder is wet and has patches of moss on it. To the left hand side, the boulder sits on the edge of a river bank with gently flowing, knee-deep water. There are plenty of easy hand and footholds, making it an achievable scramble for the Little Man. At the top, I’ve placed an imaginary treasure chest, as if the sight of an enormous boulder wasn’t attractive enough for a toddler! I’m quite happy for him to have a go at climbing it so, with that broad and overused phrase still rattling around in my mind, I send him up with the obligatory “be careful”.
Stop, stop, Stop! A nonchalant “be careful” may suffice when when they’re carrying a plastic plateful of raisins into the carpeted living room, but, outdoors, there are greater repercussions than the odd squashed raisin!
Despite the fact that I, with my years of experience and outdoor qualifications, have assessed the risks, I haven’t in anyway communicated them to poor little Jesse. Poor little Jesse, who is now probably soaking wet, sat in the river crying after having slipped on the wet moss to his left. He also clattered his knee and knocked out a couple of teeth just for good measure. Furthermore, but for the gentle nature of the shallow water, he also could have been miles away by now.
Ok, I realise that this is an extreme example and, fortunately, none of it ever actually happened. However, when the kids spot something that they want to climb or explore, they invariably run to ask me whether they can do it. I love the fact that they first of all see nature as something to explore and interact with, but I also love that they, for the moment, are still of an age where they seek the reassurance of me giving them either a big, excited thumbs up, or a ‘sorry guys, maybe next time’, thumbs down. What I’m saying is: when they see something that they are excited by but are unsure of, they know to ask before they go near it.
I’m guessing that it’s this next step where a lot of us fall down. Me sending Jesse up that boulder with a simple “be careful” is asking for trouble. I need to tell him to “stay to the right”, thus avoiding the river side. “Look ahead of you” should be in his brain too, so he knows which line to pick going up the boulder. “Look where you’re putting your hands and feet” should be reverberating around his skull so he can avoid the moss and find the easy hand and foot holds.
In short, there are so many variations of “be careful” that offer far more specific help and support. Sometimes, shouting “be careful” as they bolt off ahead of you can be our emotional knee-jerk reactions as parents. However, as with many knee-jerk reactions, they’re often not the most suitable responses. I want my kids to take risks. Plain and simple I do. I want them to explore for themselves and be willing to climb rocks and trees that others dare not. But (and it’s a big ‘but’), I want them to do it in a carefully managed way. Just by thinking about my choice of language, I know that I can help with that. So, next time you’re out on the trail and you’re just about to yell that fatalistic phrase “be careful”, consider what would be more helpful and supportive in keeping them safe whilst enabling them take risks.
In most scenarios, directing them to “slow down”, to consider their next move, is a good piece of advice. Over time, this will become natural and they’ll approach rocks, trees and rivers with increasing levels of care. This is not about slowing them down and spoiling their fun. I want my kids to do things that other kids feel are out of their reach. To do that, they just need a little bit of help and support and that, as hopefully I’ve shown, starts with our use of language.
What follows are a few contextually dependant phrases and questions to consider. The phrases are directives for them to act on straight away. The questions are things for them to consider. They can explain these back to you as they’re working through a task, game or adventure.
Tree or Rock Climbing
Where can you put your hands?
Is that branch strong enough?
Look at where you want to be next.
I’m right here (be specific or touch them) if you need help.
How are you going to get down?
Playing Near or in Water
Look what’s around you.
Can you spot where the water gets too deep for you?
What do you need to be aware of?
Can you see how fast moving the water is?
Can you see the bottom/what you’re walking on?
On the trail
Look out for roots/rocks underfoot
Which path/route would be best for you?
This is a steep descent, slow down.
Can you see where the edge of the trail leads?
The terrain is wet, look out for slippy, polished rocks (funnily enough this something Jesse and I were actually discussing just last weekend).
Are you guilty of relying too heavily on “be careful”? Or, do you have a great range of alternatives up your sleeve? As always, let us know what you think and feel free to share any key phrases that you use when you’re outdoors as a family.