elevating child care

When Children “Can’t Do It” (And How To Help)

“Don’t be afraid to try” and “Keep trying, don’t give up” are directives we hope our children will internalize. Self-initiative, gumption, resilience, tenacity and perseverance are character traits most of us wish to foster. So it can be disconcerting when our children seem to quit rather than stay on task, or worse, appear to have a defeatist attitude and refuse to even try. 
Here are the most common reasons young children say “I can’t do it” and what we can do to help:

1. External pressure

Causes: Our own agendas, misunderstanding our role or our child’s developmental readiness.

Children most commonly adopt an “I can’t” attitude because they have routinely felt pressured to perform beyond their ability and/or counter to their own interests. Since young children are especially sensitive to the underlying messages in our actions, this pressure is often completely unintentional on the part of the parent.

We unwittingly impose pressure when we believe it our role to teach our young children rather than trusting them to be natural, self-directed learners. Then, rather than feeling appreciated for their developmental abilities and play choices, our children receive the message that they are not living up to our expectations. This can happen innocently while parent and child are playing together and usually begins long before the child can verbalize “I can’t.”

It can happen when our baby demonstrates disinterest when we read the story rather than just let her practice turning the pages as she wishes. It happens when our toddler watches us build a block tower instead of doing what he wanted to do: Sort the blocks into colors (himself), line them up, or place them in a bucket one-by-one before dumping them out again.

Engaging in art projects with our children commonly causes pressure, because we can do everything so much “better” than our child. Even by making well-intentioned, unsolicited suggestions, he or she can easily feel intimidated and inadequate.

Constant praise and encouragement usually have the opposite effect of what we intend. There is a fine line between encouragement and pressure for many children. For the rest, there is no line at all. A parent’s enthusiastic cheerleading,” Come on, sweetie, you can do it!” can be intensely pressure inducing. (After all, what if she really can’t do it? Has she failed you?)

Psychologist Carol Dweck’s extensive studies on praise show that comments like “You’re so smart!” can create an “I can’t” attitude. It’s safest to acknowledge: “You are working so hard” or “you did it.”

Remedy: Our child’s “I can’t” is something we must listen to — a red flag indicating that we need to back off, trust, wait and appreciate what our child does rather than wanting more.

Infant specialist Magda Gerber said it best: “Readiness is when they do it.” Let your child be the one to show you what she is studying and learning. Be responsive rather than directive. Don’t even ask, “Why don’t you try?”

Learn to observe play and be mindful about taking over if you do join in. Our children need to be trusted to do things in their time, not ours.

Children are process rather than product oriented, but our focus on results can influence them and create pressure. Instead, give kids the message that they do not need to finish activities like puzzles, etc. Let them do it their way and allow them to stop when they’ve had enough. Stopping and quitting are not the same thing.

If a preschooler says “I can’t” to a teacher about a group activity, accept her response and try offering her another way to participate. The child who “can’t” do the art project might like to be in charge of organizing or distributing the supplies.

2.  Too much help

Cause: Parents over-responding, reacting impulsively, or underestimating child’s abilities.

Children get the message that they “can’t”, when we do for them before giving them the opportunity to do it themselves. This is a tricky one, extremely challenging for parents and caregivers because we naturally want to help.

There was a brilliant example last week after one of my RIE parenting classes. A mum and I were intently discussing something while her 11-month-old son was using the step climber between us. He had found his way down the three steps successfully at least once but was then back up top and decided to reach for his mum instead. Although this mum knew better, she was distracted by our discussion and took him down without a thought.

A minute later I mentioned what had happened, and we had a laugh about our powerful natural impulses to fix things for our kids. Meanwhile, the little guy had climbed to the top again and was now crying out for his mum to take him down as she’d done previously. He no longer believed he could make it down himself.

Remedy: Wait. Then wait some more. See what the child can do independently while assuring him that you’re right there and available. If you are attempting to undo a pattern of helping too much, acknowledge the change: “I was taking you down from these steps, but it is safer if I let you try. I won’t let you fall.” If the child continues to struggle and complain about it, perhaps offer the most minimal assistance (which will probably begin with talking him through the process: “Can you place your foot down one step?”).  Allow accomplishments to belong to children whenever possible.

3.  Negative experiences

Cause: The child has an unpleasant or traumatic experience with a particular activity.

Remedy: Trust and let go as much as possible, especially if the activity is optional. Rather than trying to sell the experience to the child, “Oh, but the warm bath feels so good. Look at all those fun toys,” acknowledge the feelings. “You really don’t want to get in the bath again after slipping under the water. That was so upsetting, I know.”

Find ways for the child to approach the activity autonomously. For example, “Would you like a bath or a sponge bath tonight? Do you want to choose some toys to bring into the bathtub? Please tell me when you are ready to go in the tub. I can lift you in or you can climb in while I keep you safe. Would you like to be the one to turn on and off the water?”

4. Nurturing

Cause: Could be a number of things, but this “I can’t” is usually a request for help during changes and transitions, both external (like moving houses, a new baby or school) and internal (motor skill development, etc.) and other stressors.

“I can’t” can be confusing to parents and caregivers when we know without a doubt that the child can. She can, but she won’t, because she needs to feel more nurtured, cared for, babied. This resistance is usually around “caregiving” and transitional activities like getting dressed, walking (rather than being carried), toilet learning, eating independently rather than being fed, etc.

Remedy: Again, accept and trust rather than questioning or coaxing the child. Offer help. Fulfill these wishes whenever possible without batting an eyelash. If you can’t pick your child up that day for whatever reason, that’s okay, too, but openly acknowledge her desire without the slightest bit of judgment. Then our children can and will do it again with confidence when they are ready.

The key to fostering an “I can” mentality is simple… Accept, appreciate and allow whatever children are able to do in that moment, rather than expecting or encouraging them to do more.

Why is it so difficult to accept the importance of readiness? Normally developing children do what they can do; they do not withhold. Parents who expect their children to perform on a level the child has not yet reached are creating failure and disappointment for both the children and themselves. Don’t people realize how it possibly affects young children when what they can do is not appreciated but what they cannot do is expected?” – Magda Gerber

I share more about trust, readiness and fostering a “can do” attitude in

Elevating Child Care, A Guide to Respectful Parenting 


If you need advice about remedies for specific situations, I’ll do my best in the comments!

(Photo by Niklas Shellerstedt on Flickr)

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89 Responses to “When Children “Can’t Do It” (And How To Help)”

  1. avatar Nicole says:

    Hi Janet,
    Please help! I have 4 wonderful daughters (ages 6 years, 4 years, 2 years and 5 months). My 6 year old is full of confidence, loves to try new things and never gives up on something until she gets it right! My 4 year old on the other hand, is easily frustrated and always says “I can’t do it!” because she isn’t capable of doing things as well as her older sister (ie. Reading, writing, drawing, cart wheels, playing sports, etc). We try so hard to encourage her and not to compare her to her older sister but nothing seems to help. We want her to be proud of herself and her accomplishments. How can we help build her confidence and help her to see how wonderful and bright she is? Thank you do much for any advice!

  2. avatar Anne says:

    My 20 month old will almost always ask for help or say “mommy do it” with a project, even if she has done it herself alone in the past. I often say, “you try it,” or “this is your project,” but after reading this post I am wondering if that is causing her too much pressure? I am not sure what to say to her on these moments.

  3. avatar Sandi says:

    I signed up my younger daughter to try various activities over the years (from age 3 and she is now 9). Each time she starts out with great gusto (ballet, gymnastics, yoga, clarinet, hip-hop) but after 3-5 sessions, she gets mad and totally ‘quits’. She’ll say ‘You can’t make me do this.’ and she will sit and pout during class. Normally, she learns very easily and I think each time she doesn’t understand something, gets over-the-top frustrated, and gives up instantly. How can I encourage her to keep trying and not get mad at the world. I want her to understand that life has challenges. She’s been asking to go back to gymnastics, after learning quite a bit on the school playground with friends. But I don’t want to pay $ only to have her quit. I might sign her up if I thought she’d stay with it. Thoughts?

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