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

“BE CAREFUL!”

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 while you’re at deleting “be careful” from your vocabulary it would be great if you could scroll down to “turn around and climb down backwards”  and erase that too because most kids, being the highly evolved beings that they are, naturally go down stairs face first (at first!) because they 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.

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.