Stop Telling Your Kid to Be Careful All the Time

CC BY 2.0. Randen Pederson

Surely helicopter parenting on the playground has reached peak interference? It's time to give the kids a break and stop making it sound like they're in a constant state of danger.

As a mother to three little boys, I spend a lot of time hanging out in parks and playgrounds while they play, run, wrestle, and burn off their excessive amounts of energy. This provides unusual opportunity to observe the radically different ways in which people parent their kids, something that is both fascinating and frustrating.

Lately I’ve noticed a troubling trend of adult interference in the way children play. The majority of parents are incapable of sitting apart from the play equipment and engaging in conversations with other adults. Instead they’re in a constant state of alert, tracking their kids visually, interrupting adults to shout comments at their kids, or hovering directly behind or below their kids to ensure they don’t come to any harm.

A number of phrases get repeated constantly. The ones I hear most often are “Oh, be careful!”, “Don’t get your shirt/pants/shoes dirty!” and “Eww, gross! Put that down.”

Monitoring is necessary in the case of small children, but this is excessive, not to mention exhausting, when you’re dealing with school-aged children. These kids are perfectly capable of handling themselves and they need to express independence while setting their own physical limits and exploring natural surroundings freely, without adult judgment.

Many parents do not realize what a lasting effect these kinds of constant remonstrations can have on children’s confidence on the playground. Nor do they stop to think about what they’re saying: it’s more a knee-jerk reaction to behavior (such as picking up bugs) that would make them uncomfortable or makes them feel slightly out of control of their children’s actions (such as being at the top of a slide).

Most of the time, nothing a child does on a playground supervised by parents is particularly dirty, gross, or dangerous. Those phrases should be reserved for moments when they’re really needed, otherwise they become like the story of the boy who cried wolf. A parent who makes their child think they’re in constant danger won’t get their point across when it’s really needed.

I am a firm believer in respectful behavior and good manners, with zero tolerance for bullying, but that doesn’t mean my kids can’t act rough and tumble on the playground. Many children need it – boys and girls alike – and trying to tailor their play to adult standards of proper behavior is ridiculous, not to mention unfair to their own needs and desires.

Can we all just lay off the kids and give them a break? Falling will teach a kid better balance next time. A yucky encounter with garbage will make them not want to touch again. Dirty clothes may be the price to pay for a fabulous game of tag they’ll never forget. Give them a warning, but then let them learn those boundaries on their own. Sure, their tongue might get stuck to an icy pole, their bums might get bruised as they go whipping down a slide, and their hands might burn after riding the fire pole, but that’s fine. Let them be the kids they’re supposed to be and, please, dress them in play clothes that actually are meant for play.