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Teaching Children To Be Careful

Safety rules exist to teach people how to do dangerous things carefully.

As with so many other tricky parenting decisions, there is no hard and fast rule for when children become ready for dangerous activities. Each neighborhood has it's own safety concerns and each child has their own strengths and weaknesses. Only YOU as the functioning frontal lobe can determine the details for your family. The deciding and the pathway forward are both made easier, however, when you view dangerous activities as part of something much bigger-the emerging independent adult.

Start with the end in mind.

If you are in the process of talking things over with your spouse or other caregivers, it helps to begin by agreeing that the ultimate goal of parenting is to make our children as independent as possible.

Our children do not belong to us. In some real sense, they belong to their future selves. We must keep them safe now, yes, but we must also recognize that almost every person eventually becomes a functioning, complex member of society.

My boys are not just MY sons. They are husbands and fathers. They are coworkers and fellow travelers. My daughter is a mother and a wife, and the benevolent ruler of a small country (if her strong soul has any say in the matter!).

My children belong to my grandchildren.

Being careful is a byproduct of competence and responsibility

The two things needed to stand on our own are competence and responsibility. A responsible adult without competence is ineffective and trapped within his circumstances. A competent person who has not cultivated responsibility leaves damage in their wake. Competency and responsibility grow best together, and learning to be careful is simply a byproduct of this growth.

Picture a child who has learned to ride their bike. The child has a whole world open to them! But without the responsibility to stay on the right side of the road and observe stop signs, they pose a danger to themselves.

On the other hand, a child may know every street rule, but if they have not developed the skill of riding, they remain isolated to where their walking legs can carry them.

Consider even the directive "be careful." It means "take care". "Take" is a competency and "care" is a responsibility.

Scaffolding independence

Many parents understand this dynamic but struggle to implement it. This is almost always a scaffolding problem. Scaffolding happens when parents provide a lesson or an accommodation that serves as a middle step for a child aiming at a higher goal.

Picture a ladder with the middle cut out. You can see where you want to go, but you can't get there yet. The pathway is missing. Similarly, you can imagine your child functioning on a more independent level, but he can't get there yet because of a missing competency or responsibility.

In order to help your child get to the next level, it helps to spend a bit of time thinking about this missing chunk. Here's strategic way to approach the problem.

  1. Define the skills the child has mastered. Define the responsibilities the child has mastered. (Ex. My child no longer strays from the sidewalk into traffic.) It is tempting to skip this step. Don't!!! The longer you consider the things the child CAN do, the more you will see how much trust you can put in your child. Without this trust, you may not be brave enough to let your child climb any higher on the independence ladder. YOU may be the one inadvertently holding them back.

  2. Define the skills and responsibilities that continue to need parental support. (Ex. Looking both ways before crossing the street.) This is the step where we teach safety skills and then step progressively further back, so that the child may practice acting independently.

  3. Define the ultimate goal. (I wish my child could ride alone to their friend two streets over.)

  4. Define the skills and responsibilities still missing or unaddressed. (Ex. What should we do if someone unfamiliar asks for directions? What should we do if no one is home when we come to visit? What should we do if we get lost? What should we do if we get hurt?)

  5. What is the next step in the ladder? What could your child learn do with support that would get them one step closer to the goal. (Perhaps they could learn to ride to their friend with you watching at the corner?)

Many moms use sippy cups and training wheels. These are great examples of scaffolding tools used to promote independence. As the child gets older, scaffolding demands more creativity. Perhaps before your child is allowed to hammer nails into a board, they must first spend some time hammering golf tees into old cardboard boxes.

Scaffolding can be as simple as a new boundary. For example, before your child can ride their bike freely around the block, they may need to stick to your street. This allows the child out of the driveway where they can practice responsible road rules under your observation.

Safety lessons are the first key

Safety rules are not a massive list of things your child is not allowed to do. Rather, safety rules are guidelines for the child's future independent self. Think of them more like lessons in safe living.

For instance, telling a child they may not use a knife is not teaching them to use a knife safely. Neither is shooing them away while you work. While you may be keeping the child safe momentarily, you are neglecting their future independent self.

Your role in the independence ladder is to scaffold the skill and provide a lesson in how to use this dangerous tool correctly. Showing the child where to place their stabilizing hand and a reminder to keep their fingers tucked away from the knife would be a proper safety lesson. Scaffolding this skill may mean you begin with close observation and soft materials. Bananas are the perfect starter food! As soon as your child shows competency with cutting bananas, and responsible knife habits, she is ready for trickier materials.

"Only use a knife with Mom's permission" is actually NOT a safety rule. It is a scaffolding boundary!! If things go well, your 15 year old will not be coming to you to chop up his apple. When giving safety lessons to your child, remember to separate out safety from temporary boundaries.

If there is something your child is not allowed to do, be sure to tack on that very important word YET. This helps maintain a growth mindset and it is a subtle reminder that future activity hinges on the child's continued responsibility.

"Sorry, buddy. Riding your bike to Jake's house by yourself isn't something you can do alone yet. There are a few things you need to learn first." See how this places the responsibility of learning and personal development on the child?

Trust is the second key

It is true that the higher you climb, the further you fall. As a result, your fear can be the greatest detriment to independent growth.

With your life experiences and our social media connection, you have certainly heard about every child who has been abducted, hit by a car, hurt with a knife, or severely injured in a freak accident. Knowing these stories makes trusting your child and the community very scary.

I wish I could promise that trusting your child will keep them safe. It won't. No one can guarantee safety in this life. Unfortunately, non of us make it out of this great adventure unscathed.

If you can not trust your child to stay safe, what can you trust? What is the whole point of this article?

In the wise words of Dory, that forgetful blue fish in Finding Nemo, “You can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.”

Part of trusting your child is trusting them to be strong enough for their misfortunes. Every bruise is part of the adventure. Scaffold and teach where you can with the recognition that life is as bumpy as it is beautiful. It is not your responsibility, nor is it healthy for your child, to attempt to protect them from all pain.

I hope our journey inspires your own,

Buckets & Berries


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