Our instinct to keep our children safe may be causing them more harm than good. Here are 3 reasons why.

It’s a phrase I utter several times a day since becoming a parent.

“Be careful.” As my son pours himself a drink from a full water pitcher.

“Be careful.” As my son plays in the playground.

“Be careful.” As my son runs down the road.

It’s hardly surprising. At the same time he discovered mobility and started to understand basic instructions, it seemed like he also developed a death wish.

The worry instinct

One of our primary jobs as parents and caregivers is to protect our children. You don’t even need to have your own offspring to feel that innate need to keep children safe from harm. After all, children are vulnerable, fragile and so naive about the things that can harm them.

Together with mum guilt, motherhood also brings with it a huge dose of worry. We worry about them hurting themselves and so we do all that we can to provide a safe environment. For everything else that we have no control over, we instruct them to “be careful”. It’s not like the instruction will actually protect them, but I suppose it provides us with some sense of comfort.

The problem is, we may in fact be doing them a disservice when we constantly tell our kids to “be careful”. Here are three reasons why.

Why we shouldn’t be telling our kids to “be careful”

Wrapping our children in cotton wool and removing all dangers from their lives can in fact cause more hurt. Risk compensation theory states that people actually take more risks when they think something is safe.

This means those modern super-safe playgrounds may in fact be creating more unsafe situations. For example, children may think it’s safer to climb higher if the surface below them is designed to soften their fall.

Asking them to “be careful” can also change their focus. It’s like when you’re asked not to think of a pink elephant and now that’s all you can think of. When they become too fixated on staying safe, they are more likely to make mistakes and second guess themselves. And if you’re yelling “be careful” while they’re about to do something, you may end up distracting them, causing the incident you were hoping to avoid.

Here are three other reasons why we shouldn’t be telling them to “be careful”.

1. They don’t learn how to identify and handle dangers

The flip side of constantly asking our kids to “be careful” and protecting them from any perceived risks is that they don’t know what real danger looks like. If they’ve never jumped from height, how would they know how high is too high? If they’ve never gone too near fire, how would they know it would burn?

We’re not advocating throwing children to the wolves and letting them fend for themselves. This is about introducing a certain level of risk into a child’s life—and that level may be higher than you’d expect.

Risk researchers have longed argued that children have a natural instinct for self-preservation. This means they’re not going to jump from a two-metre height. They will usually only dare as much as they think they can manage. And they will only gain a better perception of what they can manage if we allow them to take risks.

2. It prevents them from developing resilience

We all want children who don’t give up easily in the face of adversity. Building resilience in children starts from a young age. When they overcome minor challenges and risk as toddlers, they learn to face bigger problems when they’re older.

Experts are advocating that parents get children involved in nature play as young as possible. “Nature play is a specific type of play that is: freely chosen, child-led and unstructured (as opposed to adult-led) and includes interactions with natural elements such as trees, rocks, plants, dirt and water.”

Nature play is sometimes referred to as risky play or adventurous play because of the element of risk. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, “Nature play can involve playing at speed or at height (e.g. running at speed, jumping off objects), being near potentially dangerous elements (e.g. water), using tools or rough and tumble play. Nature play that involves an element of risk can be beneficial for child development and can also be exciting and fun for children.”

We all know there’s a certain chance of failure whenever we take risks. When our children are given the opportunity to take risks, they may fail. However, it’s when they fail that they are forced to work out different ways of doing things, which in turn builds resilience.

3. They develop an unnecessary amount of fear

Fear is very useful as a self-preservation tool. Too much fear however, can hold us back from achieving and even cause us to develop anxiety.

In the book, Achtung Baby: The German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, author Sara Zaske wrote, “Norwegian early childhood education professor Ellen Sandseter points to studies that indicate that children who engage in climbing have less fear of heights as adults, young children who engage in rough and tumble play are less aggressive when they are older, and children who experience multiple, positive separations from their parents before the age of nine have less separation anxiety symptoms at age 18.”

Constantly telling our kids to “be careful” can give them the impression that everything is dangerous. This may discourage them from ever taking risks or trying anything new.

What parents should do instead

What then is the safe level of risk we should expose our children to?

1. Teach them to be aware of their environment

Don’t just tell them to “be careful”, give your kids the necessary tools to be safe. For example, when you’ve arrived at a new location, ask them questions such as, “Did you notice that tree branch sticking out at face height?” or “Did you see the pothole in the field?”

When they are aware of what’s around them, they can then be encouraged to make responsible decisions to stay safe. It also increases their confidence and awareness of their own limitations.

2. Encourage opportunities to walk through the steps

If your child is climbing a tree, simply telling them to “be careful” won’t stop them from falling out of it. Work with them to assess the situation. How will they climb up? How will they climb down? Give kids the opportunity to think about and verbalise what they will do next or brainstorm solutions with their friends.

3. Pause

When you see your kids in trouble, don’t swoop in immediately (unless it’s life-threatening, of course). Ask them if they need your help but see if you can give them the independence to work it out themselves instead. Give them the opportunity to discover what they’re actually capable of. Pausing and giving them space and time can help them to develop creativity and problem-solving skills. It also lets them use their imagination to lead their own play.

Read next: Why an adventure playground is better for your child

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