“Be careful!”: Teaching children to fear

How many times do you imagine a child hears an adult say, “Be careful!”? I suspect it’s a close second to them hearing, “No!” And, if it’s a female child, it may be the number-one phrase coming at them, as studies have shown that girls are cautioned far more often than boys.

This, of course, is a clear and persistent message that one shouldn’t take too many risks. That there are far too many hazards in the world. So, children learn to “stay safe.” They learn to fear.

But outright cautions aren’t the only way in which children are receiving those messages. When a school takes away all traditional playground equipment and replaces it with safe, sanitized (read: boring) plastic, they don’t need to hear the concern spoken aloud to get the message. When a school bans tag or cartwheels, children learn that it’s safer to be sedentary than physically active. When children aren’t allowed to walk – or do much of anything, really – alone, the not-so-subliminal message is that they need to be protected…from everything.

Our society – and its 24-hour news cycles – have generated so much fear that if parents and educators could literally bubble-wrap kids, I believe they would. But, as Lenore Skenazy repeatedly points out, we’re prioritizing fear over facts! She reported just last week that another school has banned cartwheels on the playground – not because there have been any injuries from cartwheels, but because the potential for injuries exists! (Does that mean we should no longer let children ride in cars?)

This tells me that adults are placing their needs above those of the children. Because, the fact is, children need to take risks! Indeed, they were created to do so – and to know just how far they can push the boundaries. As research professor Peter Gray points out, risky play teaches children emotional resilience. We believe that we’re protecting children when we “bubble-wrap” them, but the truth is that children who grow up afraid of risk will not be resilient. They will not be problem solvers. They will certainly not be able to handle risk, which is inherent in life, when it comes along. Often, they will crumble when faced with challenge.

We wouldn’t keep a child from learning to speak, or read, and then expect them to suddenly know how to do so as an adult. Why is it we think we can keep children from learning to take risks – from learning to overcome challenges – and that they’ll miraculously acquire the ability when they’ve grown taller?

In a recent article, Associate Professor of Pediatrics Mariana Brussoni writes,

…it’s not up to parents or experts to decide what is risky play for a particular child. Rather, children need to be given the mental and physical space to figure out the appropriate risk levels for themselves: far enough that it feels exhilarating, but not so far that it becomes too scary.

Whether you’re a teacher or a parent, I hope you’ll keep all of this in mind when your automatic, go-to reaction is to say “Be careful!” And, to help you, here’s a wonderful chart I found on Facebook:

And here’s a great discussion about how you can help children take reasonable risks!:


  • John S Green says:

    ” … the fact is, children need to take risks! Indeed, they were created to do so – and to know just how far they can push the boundaries.”
    Yes, children are born explorers and scientists. If we encourage them to follow their curiosity—with no reservations—we are setting them up for a lifetime of courage. This strength is the stepping stone to leadership and innovation. On the other hand, having fear instilled in children does the opposite. The trepidation of repercussions shrinks one’s ability to take a chance, think outside the box and succeed—really thrive. And this includes having a deep sense of humor by enjoying life to the fullest.

  • David Wright says:

    Without getting into stereotyping, there are some interesting observations / discussions around the gender of the adults responsible for cautioning children in pre-K and schools. The vast majority of early childhood educators and elementary teachers are female. Do you think this has anything to do with it? ie in general, females have an inherently more nurturing and protective disposition?

    • Rae says:

      Thanks for the provocative thought, David. Unfortunately, I do believe that has something to do with it. But I also believe that society has created much of this situation. Do we know for sure that females are “inherently more nurturing and protective,” or have men been taught to be less so? My brother once had a sailor doll when he was a little boy. I still remember the grief he got from people (mostly male members of my family) for loving that doll. And I know that female children are cautioned more often than male children — and that, right from the beginning, fathers see girl babies as more vulnerable than boy babies — which leads me to believe that much of our overprotective nature results from being overprotected.

      I’d love to hear what others think about this!

      • Rebecca B says:

        In my experience it is more on how we ourselves were raised. My husband was not adventurous or outdoorsy at all growing up and he is always telling the kids to get down, be careful, stop jumping, etc. I on the other hand grew up quite free range, bare foot, climbing trees + onto roofs, etc. I’m still more nurturing, and he is more protecting. But I encourage and enable the kids to use their bodies, think through hesitation and fear, equip mindful movement and interactions.
        Great article! I fully agree, and appreciate the alternative language prompts as I also use the ‘be careful’ wording too often.

        • Rae says:

          Thanks for weighing in, Rebecca! I hadn’t thought about the impact of our own childhood on this, but it makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, while my childhood experiences were very similar to yours, I’ve become a whole lot less adventurous (i.e., more of a scaredy-cat) since becoming an adult. That means I frequently have to put my thoughts on pause when my first instinct is to be fearful for children!

  • Helen Garnett says:

    Love this article. We need lots more of this!

  • Indira says:

    I agree totally. But alas, where do we get the space to allow children theirs, to explore and to take risks, bogged down as we are by parental fears and governmental decrees, which forces schools to watch out or get shut down.

    • Rae says:

      I know, Indira. It’s so disheartening. The only thing I can say is that we have to do everything we can to educate parents and policymakers. I really believe it begins with the former. If they understand what is truly best for their children, they will advocate for it.

  • ⬆️⬆️⬆️⬆️ Thank goodness my (*and assuming some of your) parents allowed us to “be independent children”…. i.e.: fall down, get scrapes and cuts (without them rushing to our “boo boos”), find ways to physically and emotionally “fend for ourselves” when they weren’t around for hours, and even days, on end…. providing us the freedom to learn to “self care” and not feel entitled or bubble wrapped….

    I loved being a physically-adventurous-kid (*especially in the 90s, right before cell phones and other mobile devices “took over”…. right before people stopped looking you in the eye….). There was so much outdoor play and connection with my peers and the world…. bike riding, rollerblading, tree-climbing, trampolines, swimming pools and lakes, and my “gymnastics club”: which I started in my back yard at 11 years old: to teach kids back springs and back flips with a “spotter”. I also babysat my neighbors’ newborn babies at 11. I was taught to be independent from birth: I was a free spirit, but a quick learner). As a woman (*planning to have children in the next five years), my hope is to instill that confidence in my children).

    In fact, my current street (*that I live at today) feels reminiscent of my childhood (*albeit both might be considered “priveleged”
    /aka:wealthier than average) upbringing: kids outside, alone, for hours, playing and entertaining themselves with creative, outdoor activities…. boys and girls 3 years old and up…. no adults to prevent them from adventure and fresh air filled freedom: aka: self-esteem-building play…. I almost want to join them…. ;).

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