Nothing makes my hair stand on end like the words “I can’t.” In my years of conducting lessons, I’ve encountered more than a few children who, when faced with a simple task, too quickly drop it in frustration and say, “I can’t do it.”
I also have a three-year old who’s learning how to put on her own clothes. I hear “I can’t” a lot. Usually the words “I can’t” are tinged with a whine. Sigh.
She’s only three. I get that there are truly some things she isn’t yet capable of doing. As a parent, it’s my job to help her find the line between “I can’t” and “I can” and keep moving it forward. Take socks, for example. It’s much faster to simply put a toddler’s socks on for her and call it good. Some days, that’s all I have the time or patience for. But every time I do it is one less opportunity for her to develop the skill and confidence to do it herself.
So when we have time, we talk it through. “Here’s the heel of your sock. Where’s your heel? Here’s the toe of your sock. Where are your toes? Okay, so when you put your sock on, your toes need to end up in the toe of the sock, and your heel in the heel of the sock. Remember, ALL of your toes have to go into the sock, otherwise it’s not going to work. Yay, Naya! You did it!” And she’ll do it again, and again, proving she can.
Invariably, a few days later, she will halfheartedly try to put on one sock, snag a toe in the opening, then whine, “I can’t do it!” And no amount of “Yes, you can,” and “Remember, you showed me you could do it yesterday” will overcome her self-defeat.
Recently, I found inspiration to try a fresh tactic. It was a Facebook meme of the words “I can’t” written in crayon, then transformed with a different color to read “I can try.” A lightbulb popped on in my brain. I decided to try something new.
I first tried my new approach at bedtime. Naya got frustrated while trying to put on her nightgown and wailed, “I can’t do it!” “Wait,” I said. “It bothers me when you say you can’t do something. Let’s try this. Instead of saying, ‘I can’t,’ I want you to say, ‘I can try.’ If you try and still need help, say, ‘Mommy, will you please help me?’”
By golly, it works! (Some of the time.) Now, when she says “I can’t,” I give her my “Oh, really?” look and she’ll correct herself, saying, “I can try.” She knows that “I can try” means she has to actually try. Quite often, she succeeds on her own or with just a little help. Parenting win!
Sometimes, though, “I can’t” really means “I don’t want to.” This is a harder nut to crack. I’ve noticed this is as true for adults as it is for toddlers. But adults are savvier. To avoid saying, “I can’t” or “I don’t want to,” they invent reasons why they don’t need to learn new skills, new technology, or new information. They attack the thing itself, as in, “We all got along just fine before smartphones and they don’t work as well as regular phones.” Some go further yet, disparaging users of new tools as lazy or stupid. “In my day, we didn’t need GPS because we knew how to read maps.” It’s a bit like if my toddler threw down her sock and said, “Socks are silly, and people who wear them are, too.”
I’m not arguing that we all must learn every new thing that comes along. But I believe we should recognize and admit whether we can’t or don’t want to learn something, and not disparage the thing or those who do learn it. Figure out, for example, if you find social media frustrating because you struggle to learn it (can’t), or because you simply would rather not deal with it (don’t want to). If you realize you can’t, you recognize your limitations. If you acknowledge you don’t want to, you choose to limit yourself. Either is okay. Just don’t try and disguise those limitations by expressing disdain towards the thing or the people who use it.
Besides, whether you can’t or don’t want to do, there’s no harm in saying “I can try,” and “Can you help me, please?” You might surprise yourself.