Is it OK to frighten kids?

Cute or terrifying – the answer will depend on how much your kids know about risk.

This blog post is by Nicola Baird sharing ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children. This post asks you to think about how to help children find the world welcoming rather than scary. For more info about my book Homemade Kids, with lots of ideas about parenting click here.

Loads of children seem brave to the point of foolhardy. They can walk on walls, tackle enormous opponents (in sport), and get excited about abseiling or capsizing. Many are the exact opposite too, very cautious about new experiences. In both cases it helps if children can assess risk.

This is easier if adults are around kids a lot of the time (hello school holidays!) and not fussing. Turning summersaults on a rail, walking with eyes shut, learning to roller blade or climbing a tree are all fun activities but you so often overhear mums telling their children to “be careful”.

I’ve tried to ban that expression “be careful”  in our house feeling that it’s better to spell out the risks. Say “If you wobble try to fall to the right, away from the cars/dog poo/glass,” rather than produce a white noise phrase “be careful”  that is easy for a child to ignore.

It probably helps that I teach riding, as horses are 100 per cent risk, though I reckon they offer children 100 per cent fun too. Anyone who rides a horse needs to wear a proper fitting helmet, be supervised in the early days, and know not to shriek, suddenly jump off or stick their hand up (thus waving a whip) to ask a question. They need to be able to lead a big animal and not panic about their foot being trod on (and rather more to the point make sure they’ve got strong footwear). They need to anticipate problems and be ready to reassure the horse that a fluttering crisp packet is not dangerous at all.

Teaching risk is tricky. It can even make nervous children more anxious. I remember 10 year old Mia freaking out about squirrels after I’d mentioned that they can sometimes scare a horse when you are hacking in the woods.

But not teaching risk can be a problem too – passers-by can accidentally terrify children. As I did yesterday. Well not me, my dog who jumped barking towards a cat. He was on a lead and had been sitting quietly on the pavement staring at the cat. The aim is to let the dog quietly watch. If he barks he’s turned away. The hope is that this will teach him that cats are friends. But it’s difficult – he’s a terrier who doesn’t live with or like cats. (In the dog’s defence he is safe with children, hens, ducks and sheep).

Unfortunately a seven or eight year old was passing us at the exact moment the dog leapt forward who clearly thought she was about to be eaten. Her Turkish mum could see the dog had his eye on his nemsis, but she was cross with the girl for being so upset – possibly forgetting she wasn’t being feeble, she was terrified.  It was my fault, and I certainly tried to apologise. But it reminded me that families have to expose children to the unexpected for them to be able to be brave. Animals are unpredictable, just like cars that also often come from nowhere, silently and fast. Though in London it’s extremely unlikely you will be seriously injured by an animal. That can’t be said for cars.

It’s a shame that little girl had such a bad experience. Let’s hope she will one day make a friend who has a dog (or cat) and get to know animals can be lovely.

Over to you
How do you cope when your child does something you think is risky? Do you say “be careful” or avoid the phrase?

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6 Comments on “Is it OK to frighten kids?”

  1. i hardly ever have to use that phrase! my oldest is extremely cautious by nature. She doesn’t attempt anything risky. Even If the younger one attempts anything remotely risky she quickly admonishes him! I am usually the one saying “its ok! let him give it a go!”. You get the picture 🙂 So, in our household we face the challenge of encouraging kids to take more risks. would love to get tips on that!!!

    • nicola baird Says:

      Thanks for reply justanotherwakeupcall: This is a fun idea – draw a chalk line (or use paving slab cracks or the edge of a path) and get your kids to walk over it. Now get them to imagine it’s something more scary (eg, Niagara Falls). Now try tightwalking again – the full distance from side-to-side, takes abut 20mins and could be quite a journey.

      I think bravery comes with knowing what you can do, but children grow so fast they quite often seem to have two left feet (mine always fell when their shoes were getting too small!), so maybe your daughter is just v astutely programmed. Good luck with “give it a go”, sounds like a good line.

      Have you tried working out with her what the risks might be and asking how she’d deal with it? It’s useful because fears are voiced. But in the end patience wins. It’s not kind to force kids to do things they are clearly fearful of doing. Although Nell, when 4ish, did develop an infuriating fear of me turning on the tap!!! Nicola

  2. nicola baird Says:

    From Facebook:
    Penny Not sure what the relevance of the mum being Turkish is in this piece but that aside, I agree, saying ‘be careful’ doesn’t help anyone know what to be careful of!

    Nicola Baird Being Turkish did make a difference – I couldn’t communicate with the family to say sorry other than my gesture and the little girl didn’t understand me. The adults did understand what the dog was up to (& were obviously not upset by what it had done). My guess is they grew up around animals, but the child had no knowledge at all. The assumption by adults is that she knew not to be scared by osmosis. The reality was she didn’t.

    Pete May Doctor Who never did me any harm. Though it did make me scared of mutant coconut crabs in the Solomons…

    Teresa O I was scared of land crabs in the Solomons-walking across to the other side of the island in the dark to the toilet. It’s better to be specific to children and to say things positively like hold on instead of don’t fall off.

    Nicola: Totally agree with you Teresa on this.

  3. It’s always a tricky balance isn’t it, making them aware of the risks but without frightening them so much that they won’t try anything. I think a lot of the time words of caution can be white noise to children, even when it’s not a generic “Be careful” – or it seems like that with mine anyway! You can’t cover every possibility anyway when it comes to explaining the risks, I like to try and foster in them the ability to figure things out for themselves where I can, so I’ll tend to have scenario type talks with them, asking them things like “What would you do if you were at the park with your friends, and then X happened?”, I find it helps give them the confidence to know that they can figure things out if they have to when an adult isn’t there. Or I’ll ask them things like “Do you think it’s safer to cross the road here, or over there?”, or “Why do you think they don’t allow anyone under 12 to do this activity?”.

    Recently my daughter went on a school trip to London, and she became separated from her group in Oxford Street. She’s 13, so she’s not a small child, but even at that age it can be scary to suddenly find yourself in that situation. How she handled it was that she went into the nearest big shop and told the security guard that she was lost, and she then phoned her teacher from her mobile. I was so pleased that she hadn’t panicked and had figured out exactly what she should do – I was also really pleased that I didn’t find out about it until the evening when they got back!

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