Warning Your Child Won’t Keep Them Safe: Explain the Danger

“Look both ways before you cross the street!”

“Don’t run by the pool!”

Chances are you’ve used those phrases countless times with your children, but have you also explained why they should look both ways or not run? Have you ever wondered why your child continues to run by the pool, not look both ways or abide by any of the other almost constant parental warnings that you issue?

A new study in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology explains that we can’t just issue a warning, we need to explain the danger, explain why the action is necessary.

To keep your child safe, explain the danger“Saying to your child, ‘Don’t do that‘ or ‘Stop‘ or ‘Be careful‘ doesn’t really work,” Plumert says. “I mean, it’s okay to say that, but the next step is to say why not. You shouldn’t assume that your child knows why not, even if it seems obvious to you.”

Mothers used one tactic especially effectively: They pointed out the dangerous elements in the situation, and explained how those current dangers could cause the child to get hurt. The researchers were initially surprised that mothers focused more on the present features rather than pointing out potential outcomes, but think it’s because parents use the present – the danger – to help the child understand the potential outcome – getting injured.”

I was fascinated by the study and asked a colleague who is an expert in pediatric medicine and injury prevention, and a mother, for more information. She shared her lightbulb moment about communicating danger effectively. She heard a lecture on the subject by a brilliant doctor, who is also a researcher and editor of Injury Prevention who asked an 8- year old patient in a clinic, “what do you do before you cross the street?” He got the usual, “look both ways”. Then asked the kid, “what are you looking for?” The kid looked at him quizzically and said, “dinosaurs?”

We assume that children know the outcome, the consequences, simply by pointing out the dangers, but they don’t. Children have not learned about danger because they haven’t been taught. We have to explain why the rules exist, and explain in ways that children can understand.

Children want to learn. They are insatiable sponges when it comes to learning. Ask anyone who has spent time with a 2-year old during their infamous ‘why?’ phase. Contrary to what you may believe by the end of an endless ‘why?’ day, it’s not to annoy you, it’s to make sense of the world, to figure out the ‘if….then’ and how it applies to them. The vast majority of parenting is teaching – both through words and actions – so you need to teach the consequences, not just say ‘don’t do it’. The good news is that if you are consistently sharing the outcome, you may stop getting the questions and may even start seeing your child follow those many rules because they finally understand the reason behind the rule.

“Look both ways before you cross the street!” needs to be followed by “make sure no cars or trucks are coming because they could hit you and you would get hurt.”

All the elements are necessary…

  • Tell your child what to do (look both ways),
  • What they are looking for (cars),
  • Why they should look (they could hit you), and
  • What would happen if they don’t look (you would get hurt).

“Don’t run by the pool!” should be followed by “if you accidentally trip you and fall in the water, or hit your head and fall in the water, you could get hurt more badly than if you just fall on the driveway”.

Make it age appropriate. When my oldest was two and we had a pool I had a rule, “never go down to the (fenced) pool without mom”. I had many “why” questions, and wavering between not wanting to terrify them (or myself) about the fear of drowning, I did the too typical mom thing and started with ‘you might get hurt’ or ‘you might fall in’, but the “why” question kept coming until I finally laid it on the line in terms a 2-year old would understand. “If you go near the pool without me you might fall in and die, and then you would never see me again.” “Die” is impossible for a 2-year old to understand, even “injury” is a pretty nebulous term, because boo-boos usually just require a bandaid and a kiss, but “you will never see mommy again” clearly answered the question because the “why?” questions stopped and neither of my kids ever went near the pool without me. They weren’t afraid of the pool, where we spent many happy hours together, but they did learn to respect the water and follow the rules.

When it comes to water safety, here are some of the basic warnings, which need to be age-appropriate, and the consequences:

  • Don’t run by the pool because if you trip and fall in the water accidentally you might (fill in the age-appropriate blank from ‘hurt your head really badly’ to ‘not be able to get out of the pool’ to ‘drown’ …for older kids, you want to teach respect around water, not fear)
  • Always swim near a lifeguard because they are watching out for you and can help you if you can’t get your head above water.
  • Don’t go by water unless you have a grownup with you because if you accidentally fall in and we can’t hear you, you could die.
  • Always wear a life jacket on a boat because if the boat bumps and you accidentally fall out the life jacket will keep your head above water until someone can help you, otherwise you might sink.

Issuing a warning is always a fine line between teaching and striking such terror that it becomes counter-productive, but your fear of the consequences, of wanting to soften the blow, really of facing your greatest fear of losing your child, may leave your child more exposed to injury or death.

Issue the warnings, and explain the consequences.

About the Author

Global water safety for children is my passion and I can't wait to get up every day to work at it! I blog about water safety regularly at http://www.RebeccaWearRobinson.com, or you can follow me on Twitter at RebeccaSaveKids. Rebecca is a former member of the PedSafe Expert team


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