Monkey Business: Let Your Kids Learn 3 Life Lessons While Playing

A few weeks ago, I saw this little diagram on a friend’s Facebook page.

When I read it, I liked it…mostly. I understand that it is about empowering our children to think for themselves and gain self-esteem, but I’ll still admit that ‘Be Careful’ made me feel a little uncomfortable as something to never say to your child. Since I first saw it, it’s been hanging in the back of my mind, and without even meaning to, I’ve been chewing it over in my super-slow manner of processing and re-processing a thought like a cow chews her cud. Ultimately, I have decided that I really don’t agree.

Let’s get this clear: I am not a control freak, and I’m not afraid of letting my kids get boo-boo’s or trying new things. Much the opposite. I pride myself in being a free spirit and have worked hard to raise my daughter, Elizabeth, that way. As a result, my four-year-old is very independent and has never had a problem being left with a sitter, going some place she’s never been, or talking to new people. Actually after we got home after her first day at nursery school, she said to me something along the lines of, “I didn’t know you were going to leave me there alone,” but she never gave the teachers a fuss, just went along with it.

In addition to being independent, I would also consider my little girl pretty fearless. Her special interests are dirt bikes and sports, in which you have to be confident and take risks, so ‘be careful’ is definitely worth being part of our vocabulary.

Telling a child to be careful does not mean that you are telling him to not try, actually the opposite, it is a gentle way of saying, “Yes, go ahead.” At the same time, it also teaches him a number of other important life lessons. ‘Being careful’ is synonymous with self-discipline, taking caution and thinking things through, all habits that are important for reaping happiness and success – immediately and in adulthood. Being careful is an attribute that we should desire in our children.

Doggie in his safety gear

Doggie in his safety gear

Let’s return to my funny little daughter and her dirt bikes. Elizabeth especially enjoys watching YouTube dirt bike crashes (though we censor how graphic the ones are that she watches), and for a while she was stuck on the idea of being a ‘dirt bike crasher.’ It was cute, but eventually, as summer rolled closer and with it the possibility of her actually trying crazy things on her little bicycles (and a motorized dirt bike in the works for the future), some of my family members and I decided that we needed to explain the seriousness of crashes and accidents before she got on a gas-powered bike and had one herself. In a sport such as dirt bike competition or four-wheeling, being careful can save lives or prevent serious injuries and that is an important message that we needed to impress upon her.

But though there are risks, by allowing my child to learn to ride (even accompanied), I am allowing her to learn to be careful. By allowing her to ride and in a way that is fun for her, Elizabeth will be able to learn responsibility because there will be physical and non-physical boundaries set for her, and an immediate loss of privileges if those boundaries are crossed. By allowing her to ride, she will gain self-confidence by doing something she can become proficient at. Having to ride within our set parameters and not go beyond them will teach Elizabeth self-discipline, something that is hard for a child to learn yet extremely important in the ‘real world’. Also, she will be taught the mechanics of how her bike works and how to take routine care of it. Routine care is an exercise in self-discipline. Underlying all of this, the message that her father and I love her and trust her enough to allow her on this dangerous machine will also be relayed. An ongoing discussion of bike safety is constantly in our talks, and the discussion that I noted above that was necessary has been had. Now, Elizabeth is still interested in dirt bike crashes, but also safety gear too!

Doggie on the playground

Doggie on the playground

But not all lessons need to come from a hobby that has obvious safety risks, something as common as playing on the playground presents a situation that allows you a lesson in being careful. When I took another look at that diagram I had seen on Facebook, clicking on it rerouted me to an article on Parents Magazine’s webpage. A summary of the scenario presented was that if a child is on the monkey bars, it’s better to spot her from the ground silently than to tell her to be careful because she may get distracted and fall off. The example seems a weak one to me. To me there doesn’t seem to be less distraction between hovering around my child or verbally telling her to be careful. Per another Parents Magazine article, more than 200,000 children are treated in the hospital each year for accidents that happen on playgrounds, so it doesn’t really seem terribly over-protective to tell a child to be careful.

So what’s a parent to do? Talk to your child about being careful when playing on the playground, and set your boundaries – physical and behavioral, before allowing your her to play. In doing this, you allow her to demonstrate her ability to think about her actions and to be self-disciplined, essentially to be careful. The amazing results that come from just talking to your child are endless, I am amazed everyday by Elizabeth’s behavior and how much it is molded just by my expressed opinions and gentle warnings; it’s obvious that she’s thinking about what I’m telling her . Your child will listen to you because she loves you, and your presence will be a reminder to be careful, but your words also have a well-placed impact. Having caution and thinking things through are also methods of self-discipline, which ultimately raises a child’s self-esteem. I understand that many kids do get over-excited on playgrounds, and that is when a gentle reminder is necessary to keep everyone safe, or a few minutes of sitting off to the side (the original use of the time out) to calm down.

It is important that your children know your expectations before they even set foot on the playground, and if treated with consistent respect and trust, they will often surprise you at what they can accomplish. It may seem dull and repetitive to turn even playground time into lesson time, but children are learning every moment they are awake, and though we want to have fun with them – and often – it’s important to remember this.  Remember too that it’s not just while they are riding dirt bikes or playing on the playground that they need to exercise their self-control, but when playing at your own home, while doing crafts, playing with puzzles and books, or anything else, it is important to learn to be careful and treat with respect their own body and the things they are using.

Your child will grow in self-confidence by being given expectations that he can achieve. Learning to be careful is an attribute that we should desire to teach to our children. It is necessary to help them work towards it because the benefits are farther reaching than just present-moment behaviors or safety, but set a platform from which our children can begin climbing up to becoming confident, sympathetic, balanced adults who are able to manage their own lives and succeed in the ‘real world.’

Here are the links to the Parents Magazine articles I used. Check them out and decide what you think for yourself:


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