Dear Dave

Friday 13 February 2009

Don't frighten the broccoli!

Dear Dave,

Don't feel bad. These things happen. No matter what you do, children are going to go head over heels once in a while. Fraser has used his nose as a pogo stick on a number of occasions.

That said, it's unfortunate Sam slipped on the ice because he was looking over his shoulder to find out why you were shouting after him to be careful. Never mind, though. I'm glad it's only a minor fracture and his arm will be out of the cast in six weeks.

Hopefully you'll be over the guilt in around six years...

Of course, if you hadn't said anything and he'd gone pavement surfing on his face, you might have felt even worse. 'Be careful' is parent-speak for 'That's not a hundred percent safe and is liable to result in tears (which I don't have the time or the energy to deal with) but it isn't that dangerous and I should really loosen up a bit. Telling you to stop would be over-protective and probably worse for your long-term development than a nasty scratch and some light bruising. Who knows - you might even learn from your mistakes! As a bonus, now I've warned you, disaster won't be my fault and I can say, "I told you so." Go have some fun, and if it winds up being sore, don't come running to me.'

'Be careful' is also a signal to other adults that the parent speaking is neither irresponsible nor ignorant of the situation. It means 'Yes, I may not have had quite enough sleep for nearly a decade but I'm still aware one of my children is up to something unwise. This, however, is their decision which I reluctantly support them in because I can't entirely be bothered to argue right at the moment. Besides, I'm trying not to stifle them. Don't worry - if events go too far or they start becoming a danger to others, I'm on the case.'

Essentially, 'Be careful' is a very short phrase that contains a vast amount of implied content. Saying it is a way of relieving some of the tension of walking the line between keeping the kids safe and allowing them the freedom to grow. I use it all the time and I frequently overhear other parents using it too. Sure, it's totally and utterly lame, but we can't just stay silent in these situations or we'd explode. Not saying 'Be careful' would be like being sympathetic when a small child complains, 'There's something in my shoe,' rather than replying, 'Yes, it's your foot.' It simply can't be done.

Still... I hate saying 'Be careful'.

It's vague, unhelpful and makes me feel like I'm not in control. I've been trying to use alternatives recently. Some of them are situation specific, like 'Don't get stolen', 'Try not to wear your food. It's really not your colour' and the ever-popular 'You can do that but if we have to go to the hospital, we won't be home in time to watch Basil Brush'.

Other warnings I use are more general and merely designed to increase the kids' awareness of their surroundings. They include, 'Watch what you're doing', 'Pay attention' and 'Ow! That's painful. Please, stop.' Sadly, these are almost as limp as 'Be careful'. I much prefer to go for more extreme options, such as 'Look out for aliens', 'Don't blame me if you find yourself in 1955' and 'It will all end in blancmange'.

The last one, in particular, always makes my children stop and blink in a confused fashion. It's maybe not the most accurate advice but it amuses me and at least they're not getting into trouble...

All the best and I hope Sam cheers up soon. In future, remind him not to play chess with wildebeest.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Perhaps pointless warnings are an unavoidable part of life now. I saw a vending machine for hot drinks today that had a sticker stuck to it which read 'Warning! Hot Drinks!'.

I mean, honestly...

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