Early on in my days as a mother, I promised myself I would never say these two words to my children: “Be careful.” And I’ve tried hard not to.
The thought first occurred to me on the playground. As my chubby toddler waddled around, I watched her as best I could while still holding my newborn in my arms. Unsure of myself, I looked to other, more experienced mothers to follow their lead.
All around me I heard it, the chorus of, “Be careful.” I looked to see when it was appropriate to use. Turned out: all the time. When the child put the first foot on to the steps leading up to the slide. When they climbed the low wall to the grassy side of the playground. When they ran with enthusiasm toward the swings. Mothers said it absently as they chatted with their friends, before they crossed the street, any time at all.
I watched the effects of, “Be careful.” Children would stop, look unsure. Sometimes they’d barrel on, trying to shake off the warning as it hung in the air.
“Be careful,” is just about the most useless information you can give a person. It roughly translates to, “The world is full of unspecified dangers. I don’t have concrete information to give you about them and I don’t trust in your ability to figure it out. You’re in danger. Don’t trust yourself.” They’re two small words that pack a lot of punch.
Oh, my kids got warnings, of course. They heard things like, “That step is slippery so hold on with both hands as you climb,” or, “Look in the direction that you’re running.” A couple of times, in the most dire high-speed dashes too close to traffic, they got a blood-curdling, “STOP!!” my voice deliberately dropped an octave to that non-Mom tenor that kids can’t tune out the way they tune out high-pitched female tones. (Be mad at me if you must, but my #1 most effective trick for getting my kids to listen to me has always been to make my voice deeper, not more shrill. It works on men too. It’s also effective during business meetings).
My kids fell down, but no more than most. When they looked my way to see if I looked worried, I’d give them a smile and a thumbs up sign, indicating it was time to get back up. Sure, they sometimes burst into tears for my benefit, but they didn’t get a ton of sympathy, so they learned to dust themselves off and keep playing.
The dangers have changed over the years, but my children still never get admonished to “be careful.” They get talks about the consequences of actions: the potential results of unprotected sex or texting while driving. But I try to never make them feel like they’re ill-equipped to go out in the world and taste the sweetness of love or the freedom of a moving car.
Do I worry about them? Of course I do, just as much as I did back in the days when it seemed that every misstep could lead to a split lip and a trip to the ER. In some ways, with the stakes getting higher (and my daughter just a few months from a driving permit), it’s even harder to let go these days.
It’s not hard to see that we are all being told to “be careful” every day of our lives. The media reports on isolated incidents and makes them look like a pattern. Authorities put up posters that say, “If you see something, say something.” But see what? And when? The message all around us is that the world is dangerous and we are unequal to the task of navigating it. I’ll never tell my children to “be careful.” Because I don’t want them to lead careful lives. I want them to live lives of confidence and exploration, of curiosity and of courage. Yes, they’ll fall, get back up, dust themselves off. I have absolute trust in them, just as I did when they stood on wobbly legs and took their first steps. So intrepid. So uncareful. So alive.
As always, they are my teachers.
It reminds me of my favorite D.H. Lawrence quote, “I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.” Be wild, my children. Always.