child says I can't

Is it just me or is it super annoying to hear people respond to a child saying “I can’t” with “Yes you can, you can do anything”?

No. Sometimes, they really just can’t. Plain and simple.

And you know what? That’s actually okay. It teaches them limitations, problem solving, work ethic, communication and the list goes on. Essentially, not being able to do any and everything only makes them human and working through it only makes them stronger.

But in our house, the dreaded “I caaaaaan’t” is usually just a form of resistance because they don’t “want” to do something. Other times, they truly are giving it their all, get frustrated and just give up or throw a fit. But if all I ever say is “yes you can,” we don’t get anywhere. Rather than play the game, I assess when my child says I can’t and respond according to the activity that is causing so much angst.

Typically, we work through the following tactics for “I can’t”:

  1. “It’s alright bud, would you like some help?”
  2. PROBLEM SOLVING. “What if you tried it this way?”
  3. TOO BIG OF AN ASK. Is my ask too big for a three-year-old? Has he on his own determined to do something that is truly out of his physical bounds? Talking about it helps. Sometimes, he’ll say “Okay mom, I’ll eat all my food so when I get bigger, I can ____ just like daddy.” Which shows me he knows he can’t do everything, but realizes that someday he can do more.
  4. TAKE A BREAK. SLOW DOWN. Sometimes, they (we) just need to take 5 and then it all comes together.
  5. EVALUATE THE EMOTION. Maybe he is tired and just being whiny. Maybe his feelings are hurt. Perhaps it has nothing to do with the task and everything to do with current state of heart and mind.
  6. Sometimes, simply cheering him on is all he needs.
  7. BE AN EXAMPLE. Being mindful of teaching moments when I have to ask for help, need my own encouragement or maybe just couldn’t do something because of my own limitations. And showing him that it doesn’t make me less of a person.
  8. Making sure he knows how proud we are of them when he doesn’t give up and proves he can do something he didn’t think he could do.

I want to wear blinders and think my children can do anything they set their mind to, but I also want to raise them with realistic mindsets. I don’t want them to fear failure or push beyond their limits and hurt themselves. I also want them to feel comfortable asking for help. And more, it’s important to me that they recognize when others need help and encouragement. I want them to offer that freely to others.

When we tell our children they can do things that really they can’t, we set them up for failure and disappointment. Having realistic expectations is best and allows for creativity on the journey towards success. It’s okay to step back and re-evaluate when something doesn’t work. It opens doors for re-direction and new opportunity.

In the spirit of not overthinking a good intention, I want to also communicate that I appreciate the idea and message behind “you can do anything”! It’s the kind of attitude children need to be raised around as it shows them we believe in them. All I am saying is that it’s okay to follow that with “you can do anything if……” while helping them understand that taking a pause doesn’t mean we see them as quitters. They don’t want to be quitters any more than we want to push them beyond safe and healthy parameters.


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