"Smart, audacious and often hilarious. Takes everything you thought you knew about parenting and turns it on its ear." - Jennifer Jason Leigh


What kind of mother am I?

How could I possibly have let my barely one-year-old climb a chain link ladder? Let alone be far enough away that I could take a picture of him?

What if he had fallen?

Well, I knew he wouldn’t.

For someone who is as prone to panic as I am, truly knowing this was no small feat.

I’m so prone to panic that I think I may be one of the worst back seat drivers ever.  I’m guilty of doing things like suddenly gasping “Oh my God!” and ducking down under the glove compartment or stamping the floor as if I was in a driver’s ed car outfitted with breaks on the passenger side.

My poor husband John bears the brunt of this erratic behavior. There he is driving along listening to music and thinking about whatever when his wife drops to the floor as if a sniper has just shot at us. His response is not surprising:

What?!?! What is it? he’ll say just a notch down from a scream as he quickly looks every which way to find the source of my alarm. The bottom line is this: my panic causes him to lose his equilibrium which in turn has more than once nearly caused an accident. (And at the very least my panic doesn’t promote an easy-going car ride experience for husband and wife—to say the least.)

My point?

I’ve learned that telling my kids to “be careful!”—even if I do it calmly—will distract them from the task at  hand.

Kids, like John at the wheel, are naturally focused on what they are doing but even more so because they’re not fiddling with the radio and talking on the phone and looking for their destination or planning what they’re going to say at their big meeting. They  are intensely aware of things like subtle shifts of their weight, the grasp of their hands and their balance because they don’t want to fall as much as we don’t want them to. The worst thing that could happen to one of my kids if I was to yell out “Be careful!” is that they just might listen.  They may look around to try to find out what it is I think they should be careful of, which is the very action that may destabilize them. The safest thing a kid can do when someone throws out a well-meaning “be careful” is to ignore it entirely.

But I’ve seen a baby fall down an entire staircase and almost kill themselves! you may be thinking.

That may be true, but it’s not a “be careful!” that would have saved them.

My recommendation when a child is working on something big and new, like trying to figure out how to climb up and down the stairs, is to let them experiment in a space that has only a single step or maybe two. That way if they do fall, it’s not a big deal. Then, once they master a couple of steps, they can move onto a small staircase  while you can (discreetly) stay close by so you can catch them if they slip which will likely not happen if you can somehow not panic and just let them focus.

And if I may, while I hopefully have you reconsidering saying “be careful” I’d love to also ask you to also reconsider  telling your baby to “turn around and climb down backwards.”  Most kids naturally go down stairs face first (at first!) because they smartly want to see where they are going. Soon, however, once they’ve assessed the situation for a while, they’ll figure out how steps work and they’ll also figure out that they’re easier to descend backwards. That is, if you give them the time and space to do this.

Now how did such a prone-to-panic mom like myself manage to become zen in the face of steep ladders and the like? My kids have Magda Gerber to thank for saving them from undue amounts of stress my natural hysteria would have caused them:

The way a baby moves naturally, when he does what feels right for his body at that particular time, is always the safest…

A child who has always been allowed to move freely develops not only an agile body but good judgment about what he can and cannot do. Developing good body image, spatial relations and a sense of balance helps the child learn not only how to move but also how to fall and how to recover. Children raised this way hardly have serious accidents.

I totally got what she was saying and I quickly found that  the more I was able to remain calm and not leap up to rescue my kids every time I thought they might fall, the more confidence I gained in their competence.

Here’s a video of Hudson at 10 months old that I hope will help make my case:

See? Kids are naturally so careful!

Telling them to be something they already are is kind of weird and it’s also kind of insulting.

Speaking of being insulting, one woman, who is also a mother herself commented: “My mom still tells me to “be careful” and it makes me very angry. So much so that I don’t want to call her and tell her about my business trips to developing countries, etc. If adults don’t like it why would children.”

Be careful doesn’t inspire trust, it just hacks away it. And unfortunately it just doesn’t matter to kids that it comes from a well meaning place.

12 Responses to ““BE CAREFULl!””

  1. Emily W says:

    I’m so glad I read this and watched your video! “Be careful” is a phrase I’ve been trying to eliminate from my vocabulary ever since I annoyed the crap out of myself watching a video of my daughter’s first Christmas. Hearing myself say it so much and seeing how it had no effect on her behavior made me cringe and I kept wanting to shout “SHUT UP, MOM!”

    Now that my son is 10 months and trying to master the stairs, I keep freaking out about him falling. I spent an hour this afternoon exploring them with him and he (of course) did great. It was interesting seeing how cautious he was about figuring out how to go down. I was getting stressed about him going down forward because it’s not the “right way,” but I kept that to myself. Anyway, it’s good to hear that’s how they learn to go down. It makes sense! And I feel like I can calm down about it. So thanks :)

    • Jennifer says:

      Emily! I’m so glad u saw the video too. it definitely does make sense that they go face down at first because they want to see where they are going! but then they naturally do figure out that it is safer to go backwards. someone did a good job :) designing us.

      and i know what u mean about hearing yourself on video. i’ve cringed too at how i sound and some things i’ve said.

      thanks for sharing.

  2. Sarah says:

    Love the video. He is a cutie, and obviously very aware of his body. My youngest is a total daredevil. She is typically successful, and I try to stay close at hand for when she is not.

    Anyway, I read this post at just the right time. This afternoon my 6-1/2 year old wanted to cut some curling ribbon. I told her she could, but she needed to be careful with the scissors. She started laughing, and when I asked why, she said “I thought you were joking when you said that. Of COURSE I’m going to be careful.” She was absolutely right, so I apologized to her and she finished her craft project.

  3. Hi…mine is wwww.learnermom.com, it’s very, very new. Excellent, thanks…will send you the reference once I’ve written it.

  4. Hi

    Nope, am based further South, we live in Johannesburg, South Africa and I will absolutely share your blog (have done so via FB and at a toddler party today had a friend ask me about RIE). I am a novice blogger too….very novice so not sure of etiquette but could I reference your blog in a post I’m planning?

    Cheers, Catherine

    • Wow Catherine…South Africa! So glad you found me. Thank you for sharing my blog. what is yours?? and yes please mention it. i think re: mentioning other people’s blogs in yours, that people really appreciate it. i know i would. looking forward to reading your. i’m curious what the response is to these ideas and RIE in your part of the world.

  5. Catherine McCormack says:

    Hi Jennifer

    I’ve so enjoyed reading your posts, have in fact had several a-ha moments. My mom still says ‘be careful’ too and it drives my brother and me nuts. Now that I’m a mom I know what she’s actually saying is “my heart will literally stop beating if something bad happens to you” as opposed to “I don’t have faith that you can do what you intend to” but sadly it’s the latter that comes across :( .

    As for RIE…had never heard of it before but am really chuffed to say that we managed to figure a couple things out anyway…like talking my daughter through things before they happen. She was very allergic as a baby so we had to “spritz” her nose with saline frequently. The first couple times she screamed and I held her down (but don’t worry…I didn’t torture her for long). So I started describing what I was doing and asking if she was ready and I swear to you, even though she was only 6 or 7 months she would lift her nose when she was and from then on it was an easy thing to do. I have watched many moms holding her babies down to do this exact thing (saline up the nose that is…) and it is very difficult not to go up to them and tell them to stop, so I feel your playground pain.

    But there are so many other things I hadn’t considered before so am grateful I found your blog and an intro to Magda.

    Excellent blog, thanks!

    • Catherine. Welcome and thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I’ve actually been having some great comments and questions but all on facebook and i have to figure out a way to direct them here so we all can benefit from them.

      re: the saline drops. i totally believe that your six month old could understand you. babies are just like us….they see that we’re talking to them, they hear us and if we slow down we can do so much together instead of just doing stuff to them and at them. i’m so glad you discovered that! and i’m sure your daughter is too.

      and i know how you feel about discovering RIE. i felt the same way and am so grateful for it. it essentially makes life EASIER for both parents and kids.

      thank you for subscribing to my blog. i hope you continue to find it of some help. and please! since you’re a fan, i hope you’ll consider passing it on. i’m new out here in the blogosphere.

      and finally…how old is your child? and do u live in la?


  6. I just found you this morning, and I love what I’m reading. “Be careful” is one of those things people say without thinking. Very unhelpful.

    Thanks for putting yourself out on a limb to raise awareness of the ridiculous things people say and do to children!

    • Thanks for the comment vickie. I love your site too. Particularly your take on how “say please” affects kids. It’s like kids can’t say it enough! Glad you found me. I’m glad I found u!

  7. Oscar says:

    My 3 year old son Aidan spent most of his infancy in our previous home which was 3 levels – 2 of them with hard stone floors. My wife would never let him crawl on the hard floor because she was afraid that somehow, he would lose his balance and hurt his head. I was always opposed to this. Not sure if I was right but I would always tell her “If he does hit his head on the floor due to a mistake he made, he will learn from it and get better at crawling” or walking if he ever got the chance. He rarely did, we mostly spent our time in the middle level which had the hard floors and he was either in his high chair, jumper, or was held. We moved when he was about 15 months to a one level carpeted home and guess what? He started walking shortly after. I truly believe that if we had let him crawl and do his exploring around that treacherous middle level, he would have walked much sooner. I don’t blame my wife at all, she was brought up that way and her parents still have those ways with her and their grandchildren.

    Sometimes I take my son to the park and there are things on the playground that he just won’t try. Why, because mommy says he will fall. So what does dad do? Let it go and have a playground obstacle affect the rest of his life?

    My daughter Lily, well…she’s a whole different story. She just turned one last week and although she’s not quite ready to walk and may or may not break my son’s record, she’s crawling and balancing herself all over the place. I’ve become more persistent in persuading my wife to just let her free even if she crawls into the kitchen which has the hard floors. I’ve noticed she’s more of a risk taker.

    I’ve introduced my wife to your blog and RIE. Let’s see where this takes us!

    • Well I’m glad you found my site! I know it is hard to let children be free, but someone did a kick ass job designing the human body. We are super capable beings. RIE is a godsend because it helped me realize how much freedom children need to thrive. You can create a super safe playroom, take out everything that they may hurt themselves on like lamps and cords, and then let them be. They’ll entertain themselves, build their attention spans, explore etc. My recommendation: delete the jumpers and swings and playstations. Babies don’t need them. Let me know if you have any specific questions that I can try to answer…I’d love to be of help and I recommend you check out janet lansbury’s site http://www.janetlansbury.com/ she’s an excellent resource!

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