Kids of all ages do crazy things. They climb where they shouldn’t, jump off things you’d rather they didn’t, and goad each other into trying things that nobody with a lick of common sense would ever do.
Because they’re still growing that lick of common sense! Taking risks and learning from mistakes is how they gain independence. But it takes time.
Meanwhile, blood is spilled. Muscles are twisted. Bones are broken. And safety researchers know exactly what you’re going to say to your injured child (after the visit to the ER):
“Don’t do that again!”
They know because they’ve asked. And they also know what might work a tiny bit better to keep your child safer in the future.
University of Iowa researchers followed up on 87 emergency room visits to find out what happened during the accidents and what went down afterward between the parents and the kids, who were ages 3 to 16. Their study, in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, provides some useful insights into how to talk to kids about danger.
Definitely speak up!
Even when an accident isn’t entirely the kid’s fault—say, there was a crack in the sidewalk that made the bicycle topple—it’s worth talking about what happened. That’s how kids develop “the little voice in the back of their head that keeps them from doing dangerous things,” says Jodie Plumert, chair of Iowa’s department of psychological and brain sciences.
“I think adults can sometimes mistakenly perceive that a child understands what happened and why it happened, and that may not be the case. Having parents go over that can be helpful for the child,” she adds.
Talk about WHAT JUST HAPPENED.
Most parents in the Iowa study didn’t go into the “why” behind an accident with their kids until they were at least 7 years old. (“You were going too fast.” “It’s harder to stop a bike when you’re riding downhill.”) But that’s not early enough, the researchers say. You can definitely start those explanations earlier. Although you might give more details when explaining things to an older child, even younger kids gain valuable insight from hearing what went wrong.
Understanding what went wrong helps them “be on the lookout” for dangerous features of a given situation in the future, the study’s lead author, Elizabeth O’Neal, told me—especially during activities with a higher risk of injury, like riding bikes and playing sports.
(Good to know: Excessive speed was a factor in more than half the accidents. And almost half the time, friends or siblings played a role in causing injuries.)
Offer a better way for “next time.”
Don’t assume there won’t be a next time just because you said, “don’t.” Just over half the parents in the study offered an alternative strategy for dealing with a similar situation in the future: “When you’re doing downhill, start to pump the brakes, so you don’t get to the point where you can’t stop.” “The next time your brother dares you to shimmy up the telephone pole, tell him you’re smarter than that.”
Warn boys and girls alike.
Parents in the study were four times more likely to tell girls to be careful than boys. But research shows that boys are slightly more likely to wind up in the ER—and that being less careful than is safe is an equal-opportunity trait among kids.
Include the “why” part before accidents happen, too.
One way to get in the habit of talking constructively to your child about danger is to include a simple “why” even when explaining basic safety rules. And the beauty of that it that you can start when your kids are still toddlers. For example, suggests O’Neal, explain that your child shouldn’t touch the stove because it’s hot and he or she could get burned, rather than just saying, “Don’t touch that.”
Fewer next times?
The goal in raising a curious, active kid shouldn’t be to do everything possible to avoid accidents, child development experts say. Curiosity and activity are good. Accidents happen. But when they do, dispensing a little wise conversation, along with the hugs and TLC, might just get your adventurer thinking more carefully as he or she grows. Today, it’s a hot stove or a bike crash. But who knows? In a few years, such talk might save your kid’s life if he or she thinks twice before diving into a shallow pond or joyriding with a friend who’s been drinking.