a warning sign that says How can parents teach children to be safe? It is a question that mothers and fathers everywhere have contemplated. Two University of Iowa researchers—Jodie Plumert, psychology professor, and Elizabeth O’Neal, a third-year psychology graduate student—investigated how mothers can guide children in making safe decisions. According to the results, parents who explain why children should not touch a hot stove or play with knives are effective at bringing children to their point of view. The findings could be especially helpful for parents of impulsive children.

The researchers recruited 63 mothers along with their eight- or ten-year-old children. The mothers and children were separately shown images of children in situations of varying risk. Some were downright hazardous—a child lighting a match near a can of lighter fluid—others depicted more banal dangers like climbing on a countertop. The participants rated each scenario on a four-point scale from very safe to very unsafe. The children also reported how scared they would be to engage in the activity depicted. Afterwards, the mothers and children were reunited to negotiate on an agreed safety rating

In approximately one-third of cases, there was a disparity between the mother’s rating and the child’s rating. However, mothers were able to convince their children to agree with their assessments in 80% of instances by guiding children through thinking independently about the safety of the depicted activities. The researchers observed that telling children “Be careful” or “Don’t do that” was not effective, but offering explanations about the risky behavior or how injury could result was helpful for getting children to understand possible outcomes.

There were some children who were more likely to view a situation as less dangerous than their peers. For these children, the perceived fun of unsafe activities may overwhelm their thoughts of behaving cautiously. These daredevil children may need a little more support and explanation from parents in order to dampen their lust for danger.

“In terms of intervention, the mother-child conversation might be especially important for these risk-takers than with the cautious kids,” commented Plumert.

This research is published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.

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