We all know that words have power. As a writer and editor, I spend a lot of time thinking about words and word choice and what exactly I’m conveying when I pick one word or phrasing over another. Most of the time this is done as I sit at my computer with the luxuries of time to ponder and a “backspace” key that makes it easy to replace one choice with another. Yet, there’s another arena in which words carry just as much—if not more—weight yet I don’t have these same luxuries, and that is when I’m talking to my daughter.
For me, there are some obvious choices when it comes to talking to her. I try to be respectful, to treat her thoughts and opinions with the same respect I’d like mine to be treated. I try to be patient, to not speak over her or to put words in her mouth, even if it’s taking a while for her to get out what she’s trying to say. In her presence (and well, elsewhere too, though not always as successfully), I try not to curse or use other language that I don’t want her using anytime soon. And I try to be mindful of gendered language or using such terms as “bossy” (which, hey, let’s admit toddlers are, but it’s such a loaded word in relation to women acting as leaders) or phrases such as “good girl” (which, in my opinion, bears the historical weight of a girl being “good” if she’s quiet and obedient and unlikely to make waves).
However, lately, as my daughter has gotten bolder and bolder in her exploration of her world, I’ve found myself repeatedly using a phrase that I’m not particularly fond of: “Be careful.” It’s not that I don’t want my daughter to be careful. When she’s walking through a parking lot or near a road, I want her to be careful. When she’s climbing up the latest thing she’s found to scale, nothing between her and the hard ground but a few feet of air, I want her to be careful. When she’s in the midst of a hushpuppy obsession and considering just how many she can fit in her mouth at once, I want her to be careful. I want my daughter to be whole and healthy; I want to avoid trips to the doctor’s office or ER. But I don’t want “Be careful” to be the mantra of her childhood. I don’t want her to grow up with that warning always ringing out in the back of her head.
Instead, I want my daughter to take risks, mostly well-considered ones, though maybe even a few foolish ones. I want her to be bold in her exploration. I want her to climb one rung higher than she thinks she can, go out a little further on that limb than she has before, venture farther afield with each new day. I don’t want her to live a life so blanketed with caution that she misses out on opportunities or fails to achieve that which she wants and is capable of if only she stretches herself. So how do I reflect that in my language? How do you warn your children of real and actual dangers while not stymieing their exploration of the world? I’m looking to learn and welcome suggestions.