You Can’t Do It! – 3 Powerful Messages Parents Don’t Intend To Send

“When you grow up you can be anything you want to be,” my mom often told me. She believed in me and wanted me to know it. Oddly, I translated this encouraging message into an overwhelming expectation that I could never live up to: “You have to be big, important and really famous. No mediocrity for you!”

We all parent with best intentions, and we are bound to be misinterpreted by our children sometimes. But there are some unproductive messages that we commonly send with our words and actions without meaning to, and I’ve found it helpful to be aware of them.

1)      “You can’t do it.”

We probably wouldn’t tell our child that he or she was incapable of accomplishing a task unless it was inappropriate or dangerous, like lighting a match. But toddlers hear this unintended message when we follow our impulse to ‘help’ them do things they are trying to do on their own. For instance, carrying them down from a climbing structure; showing them how to do a puzzle; or fixing any problem they may eventually be able to solve independently.

An infant might hear this message when we hand him a toy that he is straining to reach, reposition him while he struggles to roll from back to tummy, or even intervene too soon when he is trying to ease himself back to sleep.

In my parent/infant and toddler classes, I witness the results of the “you can’t do it” message often. A child ascends a climbing structure or platform and freezes, calling or crying for an adult to bail her out when she is usually perfectly capable of climbing down independently (while we are close by, spotting for safety). It’s a challenge for us to be patient and relax when our child is struggling, but the glorious, confidence-building result (I did it!) is well worth our effort.

2)      “Don’t trust your feelings.”

The instinct many of us have when our children stumble and cry, react fearfully to something that we know is safe, or just seem inexplicably out of sorts, is to reassure them by saying, “It’s okay. You’re alright. That was nothing. Shhhh.”  Or even, “Brush it off!” But in those moments our child does not feel okay. He hurts. He’s upset. And these godlike people he counts on to guide him — his parents — are telling him not to feel what he feels. This is confusing and invalidating.

A child’s tears or anger make us very uncomfortable, but the healthiest message we can send is that feelings are just feelings. We don’t control them and they are all acceptable, perfectly valid. It’s best for us to take a deep breath and lovingly allow our child’s feelings to run their course.

 3)      “What you can do isn’t enough.”

When we try to urge development forward by placing babies in positions that they will eventually achieve naturally, like sitting and standing, or show them how to use toys and materials rather than allowing them to develop those skills in their own time, we may believe that we are helping, teaching, parenting as we should. But, as infant expert Magda Gerber emphasized, “When babies are ready, they do it.” Babies always do what they are ready to do. They show us what they are working on, if we allow them to. They don’t hold back.

So, by teaching and helping our babies to show our love for them, we inadvertently send the message, “I don’t appreciate what you are able to do. I want you to do more.”

Magda Gerber implores in Your Self-Confident Baby, “Why not acknowledge your child when she turns herself onto her side (which requires strength and coordination) instead of propping her into a sitting position with pillows? If she doesn’t yet have the strength to hold herself up to sit, she will be cramped, have poor posture, and be unsteady. She will feel unsure rather than confident. Accept and appreciate what she does.”

We don’t live in a “relish the moment” society. We aren’t encouraged to be satisfied with the status quo.  When we’re dating someone, friends and family want to know when we’ll be married. When we’re married everyone asks when we’ll have children. When we have a baby the focus is on developmental milestones. Is he smiling, crawling, walking, talking, toilet training, reading yet? When will you have another child?

Our babies, if we allow them to, will teach us to let go of the fast track and appreciate the present. We just have to relax, ignore the well-intentioned queries of those around us, enjoy whatever our baby is doing right now, be grateful for this interesting person we are learning more about each day — send our baby a “you are enough” message. Children grow up really fast.

“The consequence of hurrying a child may be that the child feels that she’s not living up to expectations. The most important person in her life, the parent, wants something the child cannot deliver. This is good for therapists because it breeds people who need therapy. They grow up and say, “I don’t know what I want,” or “I don’t feel good enough.” – Magda Gerber, Your Self-Confident Baby

Does any of this ring true for you?

I share more about this mindful approach in

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

42 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Great post Janet. It’s so hard as a man because we just want to make everything better right NOW so I’m guilty at times of all of the above.

  2. This is an(other)important message, Janet.

    I sense early ‘hovering’ in numbers 1 – ?

    We were careful not commit sin number 2 – habitually validating our child’s feelings and then moving the conversation in some developmentally appropriate direction. Here are some words….
    “I can see you are upset…”
    “Looks like you liked that…”

    I’ll let number 3 rest – those motor examples are just more complex to me than are easily represented in comments.

    I’m thankful for you and your blog, Janet!

    1. Barbara, thank you for adding your thoughts. They are always welcome and appreciated!

  3. When I was a kid my mom always told me everything I did was great and I could achieve whatever I set out to do… eventually I didn’t believe her anymore and took her praise as meaningless. Then when I got an A in a class, I took that praise as meaningless too.. a fluke..graded on curve… anything but how I should have taken it. Somehow that constant praise made me feel like a failure.

    1. Hmmm…I can relate to finding praise “empty”, and I was hooked on it. Good topic for the community discussion page or a future post!

    2. avatar Tara Mahesar says:

      Hi, just thought to weigh in also. My mother told me when I grew up I could be anything. I took her quite literally. One day she asked me what I would like to be when I grew up. I said “a bird.” She laughed at me. I was devastated. She told me I could be ANYthing, and now this did not make sense to me seeing as how I wanted to fly and birds fly. So I thought she meant ANYthing, but nope, she just meant I could be like someone else. Boring. 😉 Not sure why it sticks in my head. At least I didn’t tell my whole 1st grade class I would be a bird when I grew up! Ha. Oh well.
      Nice reading these things. Great information for new parents, old parents and just about anyone for that matter.
      –Tara

      1. Oh, wow… I’m sorry your mom couldn’t have validated your fantasy, and it makes sense that it would stick in your head. Being a bird sounds wonderful to me, too! Then I could be on the other end of the mess on my car windows. (Bad joke…sorry!). Seriously, thanks so much for sharing this story. It’s very powerful (for me, at least) to hear your memories — because they illustrate the point of view of a child.

      2. Omg me too. I wanted to be a cat when I grew up and I felt so misled when I found out I couldn’t.

    3. That is exactly what happened to me, too. I got to the point where I just shrugged off any such comment as totally meaningless and undeserved. And quite naturally, after being straight A up till Uni, I turned into the least self-confident young adult that could be. Took years of conscious work on myself to gain some self-confidence. (Still love my Mom though, bless her, I’m sure she only meant to do the best 🙂 ).

    4. I’m now 30 and my mom was exactly the same (and still is). More so lately, I take the praise with a grain of salt because I sometimes need some constructive criticism and not just praise and that was amazing etc. I crave the real and true advice and not constant “you’re perfect.” I did get her positivity but I know that for my 7 month old I want to have a bit of that but also to let him figure things out for himself and not give constant praise to everything he does. I’ve been using Janet’s blog to help with telling my guy what he did instead of saying yayyy awesome, you did it. I truly believe that this way he will learn for himself and be even more creative and confident.

  4. Oh thank you so much, this comes right on time. The little man is desperately trying to crawl, getting a bit closer each day but still has some work to do on this. It is SO HARD not to say “Wow, superb how you did that!” and stuff. And I almost forgot why I shouldn’t say it. Thanks for reminding me.

  5. I think this is a great post – one I want to pass on to some new Mothers I know who are wondering what they need to be doing with their babies (to help them develop – better).

    I have a question though as it relates to my 3 1/2 year old who is in physical and speech therapy for low muscle tone. The PT is where I need to motivate her and she needs to work hard to do things she can’t do very well. This post made me think about how this fits into her life….She is very quick to say that she can’t do something – but she can do it and needs encouragement. I find myself wanting to say- you’re so strong, you can do anything type things. I’m now lost on this one!

    1. Hmmm… It might be more affirming to reflect and acknowledge her feelings and say something like, “I know you feel like you can’t do it, but every time you try you get a little stronger.” If she get’s frustrated, you could comment on her effort, “You’re working really hard.” Then, when she makes progress you might remind her, “You tried and tried, even when you thought you couldn’t do it and now you did it. You must be very proud!”.

      I’m going to see if my friend Barbara, a physical therapist and child development specialist, will come back here and give you her thoughts… Your question is right up her alley.

      1. Generally, I really like Janet’s suggestion of “every time you try you get a little stronger” as an emotionally validating response – if it is true. Unfortunately there are so many physiological reasons for low tone, that I cannot generally recommend what to say to a child. Taking your concern to her PT is appropriate.

        Once a child is identified as needing specialized exercise to advance developmentally (therapy) the broad recommendations to prompt emotional growth have to be reconsidered also.

        Jill, you seem to interpret her responses as behavioral – willful disobedience. But she in fact may have inability for a particular task.

        I encourage to think more broadly for activities that she might like to try.

        Swimming, martial arts, dance, adapted bicycling, hiking, a musical instrument, a toddler/child gym. All good for parents, too. (Well, maybe not the gym.)

        I am not prone to requiring these activities, but offering rewards for trying something is a very personal parenting decision.

        1. Barbara, thanks for kindly offering your professional advice! I only want to add my impression that Jill describes her daughter’s attitude as a little bit defeatist rather than disobedient.

  6. Really great post. Some of what seems to be so simple and innocent to us really can have such an impact. We can’t look at ourselves enough.

  7. Hi, Janet! I’m a new, inexperienced, panic-stricken mum from Greece-Athens!! Firstly, I would like to thank you a million for your valuable advice!!!! There are numerous times that I don’t know what to do or times that I question my abilities and believe me you have been a great relief!!! There is a tendency here in Greece to compare everything!! including our innocent little ones! “Has your baby said Mum yet?” “Do they play with their toys?” “How much do they eat?” As a result, we, mothers, tend to fastforward our offsprings! We don’t cherish the moments, we just demand more and more! My daughter is 4 months old and I had been trying hard to make her play with a soft ball I had bought her-that was before reading your article about leaving them alone to explore things. Of course, I ended up playing with the ball, alone, while my daughter was watching me passively… When I decided to follow your advice, I just put the ball next to her, left the room and let her in peace. Soon she started touching, pushing and playing with the ball when mum was not around!!! Only then did I realise that my daughter is an independent human being and that spoon feeding can only do things worse… Thank you once more for your great help! I wish we had people like you or sites like yours in my country…

    1. Hi Valia and welcome! Please don’t panic — you have very healthy instincts, and I’m so glad you’re finding Magda Gerber’s guidance helpful. Thanks for sharing the discovery of your daughter’s abilities! Yes, even a 4 month old is capable of making choices and instigating activities that interest her. Babies don’t have to be taught how to play, and their playtime is less productive when we try to do that.

      Remember to spend time quietly observing your daughter while she plays “her way”, too, so that she knows you appreciate and enjoy her. She will learn that you trust her to play independently when you are around, as well as when you leave the room. It’s wonderful to spend time with children this way, with no pressure on either one of you to perform.

      Projecting trust in your baby, rather than fear about what she’s NOT doing, is one of the greatest gifts you can give her. So, don’t worry, and as Magda Gerber said, “Do less, enjoy more!”

  8. Hmmm I definitely disagree but understand how this could be questioned.

  9. Hi Janet, this is a thought provoking post.

    I think, having raised a 5 year old so far, there are instances of conflict between 1) You cant do it and 2) Dont trust your feelings. For eg. when he was 2 or 3 if our son fell and did not hurt himself, I had to check my impulse to run and gather him up or comfort him right away. I usually waited a few seconds and looked at his face and body language. If he “needed” comforting, I would go over but otherwise he would try to resolve those hurt feelings himself and then get up and proceed – to fall again :-). Now, he rarely looks for sympathy when he has a fall or a negative experience – however, we have to be careful because there are occasions where he bottles his emotions in and we have to hug him and let him know it is ok to cry or to complain.

    We were (and are) also challenged by the comparisons to other kids. Our son is very tall for his age and at 5 he looks like an 8 year old – so the expectations are higher when he is with other kids and in gatherings. Luckily, he has developed a sort of free-spirit attitude where even if other kids make fun of him, he ignores them and plays on his own – or acts the clown so they start laughing and just accept him. He has turned out to be very gentle to kids younger to him.

    The biggest challenge as a parent is to assure yourself that kids will turn out just fine – healthy, loving and kind – if parents build their own self confidence and hone their instincts. Occasionally, things will go wrong – but we just cant dwell on it. We cannot take credit or blame for all the positive and negative things that our child goes through – sometimes its just pure luck!

    So just enjoy your kids and they will enjoy being kids!
    Vino

    1. Hi Vino,

      Thanks for your thoughful repsonse. You sound like a great dad!

      I see what you’re saying about 1) and 2) conflicting, but I don’t believe they do.

      This is the perfect way to handle a fall, because you are not projecting fears and worries that upset your boy when he may be fine:

      “when he was 2 or 3 if our son fell and did not hurt himself, I had to check my impulse to run and gather him up or comfort him right away. I usually waited a few seconds and looked at his face and body language. If he “needed” comforting, I would go over but otherwise he would try to resolve those hurt feelings himself and then get up and proceed – to fall again.”

      Children don’t perceive falling as a such a negative experience unless they are actually hurt or we teach them to be upset by our repsonse. But if our child DOES have an emotional response, it’s best to acknowledge it, allow the crying to continue as long as it needs to, and provide non-judgmental comfort. “That hurt and you’re really upset about it”. When we accept those feelings and encourage their expression (even if the injury looked like “nothing” to us), our child doesn’t bottle emotions — he continues to trust his feelings.

  10. My daughter is 20 months. When my daughter does fall down, and she cries, I usually ‘calmly’ come over to her and I say, “Let’s see, did you loose any fingers?” We count the fingers, and toes, and then I say did you get a boo-boo?

    If something is hurt she shows me where. I kiss it better, then she kisses it better too. I usually, even if there is an actual boo-boo tell her, “I know, that was scarey.” or “That must of been ow-ie.”

    She responds well. Usually the tears and fears disappear quickly when I acknowledge the incident as a real experience for her, even if I know it was nothing major.

    I also don’t make it into a panic either. Sometimes there is a good cut or blood, and I do the same thing as above, but we then go get the boo-boo kit.

    She helps me clean the boo-boo and put on band-aids. I think it helps her, and she seems to enjoy then taking band-aids and fixing any imagined boo-boo out there.

    🙂

  11. avatar Alexandra Blaker says:

    Hi Janet –
    Love this one. Clearly captures short and long term impact of what it is to respect young children, in their own process, instead of the distraction that so many adults feel compelled to use.
    Looking forward to sharing it!

  12. Hi Janet,
    Great post as always! My question/comment comes along the same line as Jill’s post above and refers to number 3…not “placing babies in positions that they will eventually achieve naturally, like sitting and standing”… How do you think this concept relates to babies and young children with medical and developmental disabilities?
    Our two children have been in this category, and I have found that working with Early Intervention especially has been very challenging. Our parenting approach has been to allow our babies/toddlers to explore, develop more on their own and in their own time, whereas the medical community definitely focuses on pushing them with as much therapy as possible as early as possible to get them on track with their peers. This can end up being 4 different types of therapy each multiple times per week… and with naps, and feeding, there isn’t time for ANYTHING else.
    I have seen a tremendous amount of anxiety and tears in my babies/toddlers in therapy and to me this not the way it should be.
    With our younger son, I ended up canceling most of his therapies and just letting him explore, play and enjoy lots of typical activities like going to the park frequently, playing outdoors, enjoying lots of physical activities, and spending time with his grandparents, and on play dates with other kids. He did learn to do everything, and just started walking at 2. His balance is off and he struggles with muscle weakness, but I don’t see that making him scream and cry by doing things he hates, or is uncomfortable with, is the answer for him to do it all sooner.
    I tend to use the therapists to guide me, vs. them each working with him multiple times per week, and things go much better. I could see the therapist pushing a child more when they are older. Thoughts on this concept? Thanks, Deb

    1. Deb, I really admire the mindful way you are approaching this challenging issue. I understand the value of the medical community’s “milestone checklists”, but to be honest, they drive me crazy. Development is not a race!

      In Los Angeles there are some RIE-influenced therapists that believe in minimal intervention — and more trust in the child — which is the ideal approach, in my opinion. The more children can develop skills independently, the better. Unfortunately, the general public, medical community and mainstream therapists have not caught up yet. Rather than trusting the child (and nature), the general attitude seems to be, “If we don’t make it happen, it won’t happen”. But armed with the awareness you obviously have, I hope you can continue to find balance. Keep up the wonderful work, Deb!

      1. Thanks Janet… that support, well it sure means a lot. It is a real challenge when you really feel that your instincts are right about your child, but everyone else disagrees with you. I do think having some professional guidance about how to help our kids is important. I do. And, I do think that because I have worked with our older son for so long, that does make a difference with my younger son. I have a lot of experience in knowing what to do, how to help him without needing so much professional therapy in our home.
        Honestly this is often true with home nursing for kids with very complex medical needs as well. Choosing between having a nurse in your home all the time.. or doing things for your child yourself, and having a typical life for your child.. which would you choose? We chose a typical life for our son, and he lived as typical a life as possible, with a ton of equipment you’d usually only see in an ICU setting… it was seriously hard work… but so worth it, to give a little boy as normal a life as we could give him.
        To me, this isn’t that different. We want our toddler to have a typical life. So… yes, he is doing things later. Ok…As he gets older he very well may need more interventions in his life. I just don’t know. But right now I see a happy, engaging, adorable little boy who just wants to play and be a little boy. I’m thrilled, and I really believe he will adjust to what life has for him if we can continue to provide a stable, loving, supportive environment.

        1. Deb, hold on to your fantastic instincts and keep trusting. You truly are an inspiration. And your children are blessed to have you for their mother!

  13. The one thing that has helped me has been to slow down. Whenever my child cries out for me because he can’t do something, I move very very slowly towards him with a calm smile on my face. Usually, by the time I get there he has figured out whatever it was he was stuck on! This works especially well at the park because he’s usually quite a distance away from me, but the other moms look at me like I’m heartless. Whatever… 🙂

  14. Great post, I shared it with my families.

    The other great result of empathy for children who are sad or hurt, whether an adult thinks they “should” be or not, is we are modeling behavior we want the children to show towards their friends. We then have a group of children that offer hugs and a hand up instead of walking by a sad friend thinking “that is his problem and he shouldn’t be such a baby.”

  15. Hi in regards to 1) “when he is trying to ease himself back to sleep” – could you pls elaborate on your meaning here:what would be “too soon”? Would you say nursing a child to sleep for example when he awakens is not beneficial/ideal and if so what would you recommend as alternative please?

  16. Hi Janet,

    Thanks for reminding me of the intent behind our words.

    I want to talk about hurrying children a little bit, as it relates to mastery for children. I have been thinking about how much pressure there is for moving forward for kids. Whether it is to crawl, read or master emotions these are all accomplishments that occur in a prism of mastery. Too often people think about milestones as pebbles on the road to the life of success, but when people simplify skills. It becomes all too easy to kick those stones aside and forget to allow people mastery of the different dimensions of the skill set, which enables confidence.

    I can imagine a mud crawl, reading for pleasure and teaching others about a calming technique are dimensions of this prism as well and by constantly focusing on the future, you may miss the present increasing mastery of a skill or discourage the very mastery by always looking down the road.

    These are my thoughts at the moment.

    Thank you for continuing to share your work.

  17. My 3 month old HATES being on her back and much prefers when I sit her upright to look around. She’s quite inquisitive and VERY alert. Has been since day one. Am I missing something? I don’t disagree in allowing baby to do things on there time frame.

    Any explanation for me?

  18. avatar Aunt Betty says:

    It is amazing to watch and encourage a child while they are learning a new task. It becomes easier with practice. I volunteer on some Sundays with a preschool class. It drives me crazy to see the other teachers fix everything for the kids when there is a mistake or a child not completing a task quickly.

  19. Interesting post Janet. I wish I knew exactly what my mother did for me, because I feel as though my confidence and self belief has always been very strong. She never told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, but there was always this strong sense inside of me that whatever I did do, I would do well and that she knew I would do well. It didn’t feel like pressure though, it was more like just genuine belief in me as a human. I’m trying to repeat the whole process with my boys.

    1. Sounds good, Michelle. I imagine it “worked” because it was genuine. I feel the same way about my children.

  20. Hi Janet.
    First of all, THANK YOU for everything that you write, for all of your work in this area and for sharing so much on your site – it has given me guidance when I have felt completely overwhelmed & lost. I can’t actually explain how much I appreciate it! Re. number 2, I am conscious not to squash or dismiss my daughter’s fear but I also don’t want to encourage her to back away from experiences – like searching the garden for bugs, patting a gentle dog etc. once acknowledging the feeling, do you have any suggested phrases for what to say (or do) next? Thank you 🙂

    1. You are SO welcome, Virginia. I would actually not say anything to try to coax or encourage your daughter and would, instead, 100% let go and trust her process. That trust is what gives children the confidence to overcome their fears (in their time). 🙂

      1. I had a feeling you would say that! 🙂 thanks again 🙂

  21. avatar Suzi Parry says:

    Another wonderful article Janet, thank you. As an early years practitioner I use RIE practices (among others) with young children every day. However I also have a 5 and 8 year old of my own. I wanted to offer an example of allowing children to do things in their own time.
    When my daughter started school, we were invited to comply with the school policy of getting your child to read to you at least three times a week. My daughter hated reading, she took no pleasure in it and wanted to focus on her many other interests. I could see the potential risk that making her read would turn reading into something to dread. So I decided I would not comply with the schools request. I never once made her read to me. She frequently read cereal packets, road signs, signs in shops etc, and occasionally she would ask if she could read her book to me. I also read her a bedtime story every night (and still do). I recieved gentle reminders that I should be reading with her from the school, and lots of ‘bad mother’ looks from other parents, but I stuck with my decision.
    My daughter is now 8. According to the school she has the reading and comprehension skills of a 10 1/2 year old, but far more importantly, my daughter loves to read! She consumes books and is always asking for more. I sometimes wonder if that love would be there if I had made her read when she wasn’t ready.

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