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Oops-a-Daisy—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

It’s been great to resume visits with grandparents, since all the adults in the family are now vaccinated. We meet up at parks and playgrounds, of course, since the children are too young for shots yet. One of the grandmothers has a habit of shouting out, “Be careful!” right AFTER a child has stumbled on a root or slipped a grip on a climber. Of course it’s too late to heed the advice at this point. The children look bewildered, embarrassed, and or crushed.

What’s something I can do to model encouragement and caution, and maybe prevent falls, BEFORE any pain and embarrassment happens? Or, something to counter the effect of Grandma’s remark after she says it?

Getting Back to Normal  

Dear GBtN,

Ah yes, retraining Grandma. Not easy. Of course she’s saying this out of love and concern, but the too-late warning puts everyone’s focus on the child after a misstep has been made. This draws attention to the child’s momentary lack of coordination – which is not the kind of attention anyone enjoys.

Building Coordination

Throughout childhood a child is gaining skills in balance and coordination. A six-month-old may topple over from a sitting position. But as the torso lengthens, and muscles get stronger, there are almost daily gains in control that will carry a typically developing child from first steps to taking off on a two-wheeler without training wheels. 

The best way to help a child gain coordination is to provide plenty of opportunities to practice moving. Stand by quietly to let him listen to messages from his own body about his center of gravity. Often a child will watch other children to get ideas about how to move – for example, copying the arm, torso, and leg action of the child on the next swing as he tries to get the hang of it himself. 

If he’s easily distracted by other children, or seems wary around them because their movements seem unpredictable, make plenty of time for solitary practice when the playground isn’t crowded, or in your own backyard. 

Introduce new physical challenges, or follow his lead, as he shows readiness to climb to new heights and to slide down more slippery slides. Note, tummy sliding, feet first, is safer for toddlers because their heads are still disproportionately heavy and they may fall over from a sitting position.

Building Confidence

Everyone stumbles. Everyone experiences failure. Give your children the gift of confidence so they can pick themselves up and try again.

Wait to react after a child falls to see if he has hurt more than his pride. “You’re all right,” may be all he needs to hear to move on to the next challenge. If you frequently overreact when a child of yours takes a tumble, it would be advisable to arrange for your children to participate in large motor activities with another, less emotionally entwined, adult. Young children tend to read the emotions of their caregivers to help them know how they themselves should feel. If you’re upset, they think something upsetting must be happening. If you’re cool as a cucumber, there’s obviously nothing to worry about.

When your child approaches a challenging activity, for example, hiking on a trail that has slippery rocks in spots and fallen tree trunks in others, give him a heads up as you set out. Talk about staying on the trail and paying attention to where he’s stepping. It helps if you add scavenger hunt details to the hike to help slow down his walking pace. Look for worms, snails, lady bugs, and the presently ever-present cicadas. When Grandma is along for the hike, start off with a reminder that, “There may be roots on the trail, so let’s walk carefully.” Maybe she’ll catch your drift, or maybe she won’t. 

Similarly, other situations warrant a warning to, “Let’s be careful” as you enter them. These include pushing the cart in the grocery store so as to avoid the product displays and other customers, treading among the rows in a strawberry field to protect the squishy berries, and using “walking feet” to go from the locker room to the pool on wet concrete.

Building a Connection

Grandma may be nervous around grandchildren she hasn’t spent much time with in over a year. She’s not familiar with their current interests and capabilities, nor their anxieties. Truly, a fall and an offhand remark from Grandma may have been taken with a shrug pre-COVID. But the pandemic has taken a toll on children’s mental health. Her “Be careful!” echoes thoughts common among children and teens this past year (as well as most adults!), that the world is not a safe place. Even school was unsafe. Even visits with beloved grandparents were unsafe. Unprecedented precautions, and often avoidance of other people altogether, were part of acquiring the family’s groceries. 

If motor activities such as hiking or climbing on playground equipment are more than Grandma is ready for right now, maybe your get togethers could be planned around “safer” activities. How about a few laps around a rubberized athletic track? The adults can stroll and chat while the little ones literally run circles around you. If one should stumble, maybe Grandma will be too far away to notice or to be heard.

Give your children the chance to debrief from her careless remarks. After the visit, open a conversation to invite reactions to that weird thing Grandma said. Reflect your child’s feelings with, “That was a silly / hurtful / inappropriate thing for her to say.” Speculate aloud why she may have said it. Depending on your child’s age and personality, offer to approach Grandma about it, together if possible, to tell her how it makes the child feel. It’s always helpful to not only tell someone what you’d rather she not do by suggesting a replacement. In this case, see if “Oops-a-daisy!” could be substituted.

Give Grandma time to readjust to the rambunctiousness of children. She may drop the “Be careful!” comments when she’s more used to their regular slips, spills, and collisions. She’s getting to know the children all over again.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist  and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. See the website for Zoom workshops for Girl Scouts and outdoor activities at the museum’s park for families.



Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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