When Children “Can’t Do It,” 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)


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

  1. Wow! So great to read this post right now.. We are going through a lot of this very stuff with our 19 month old.. We have taken some RIE classes and read parts of some books, so we’re not total RIE, but we really love parts of it.. We have an issue with our daughter where with simple tasks that she has done many times, like walking up the 3 steps outside, sometimes she just doesn’t want to do and asks for help or to be picked up. What little I know of RIE, I always assumed that since I knew she could do it, I should let her do it alone again, with sportscasting her feelings, or even verbally offering advice if needed (as you describe above) so it was really interesting to read your point #4 above where you say to allow the child the help if she is asking. For us, that would mean holding her quite a lot of the day, and basically picking her up for every step she comes into contact with as those are her preferences (to be carried) so that would be hard.. Anyway, I know I’m rambling here a bit.. But I would love to hear more on your point #4 just because for us it would be hard to carry her all day, every day..

    1. Thanks for your great question, Amber. Are the requests for help “sometimes” or is this about “holding her quite a lot of the day, and basically picking her up for every step”? If she wants this help more than once in a while and you aren’t aware of there being a particularly stressful situation in her life right now, I would consider this testing rather than a need for nurturing. In that case, what she needs is for you to calmly give her boundaries with acknowledgements for her desires, i.e., “I know you want me to carry you, but I don’t want to do that right now.”

      I would definitely not “help” her up or down steps. Either she should do this independently (which might mean crawling down or going down on her bottom), or you could carry her down. Holding her hand does not give her a safe sense of her own balance.

      Remember that this is a relationship, not slavery(!) and your needs matter as much as your daughter’s. So, hold her when it’s okay with you and preferably when you are sitting down together, so you’re comfortable and you can actually pay attention to her. Don’t fear her cries and complaints about this. Your daughter, like all children, has a need for physical contact and attention, but that doesn’t entail being carried around.

      1. Amber, I had another thought (a morning jog will do that). Do these requests from your daughter cause a bit of conflict between you? What I mean is…do you express annoyance or argue, etc.? Because that could be the reason she persists with wanting these things during a period when most children crave “do it myself”.

        Either way, the remedy is a calm “yes or no” decision on your part, with no fear of the feelings your decision might touch off in your daughter.

  2. Such a great post on a topic I’ve never seen addressed by anyone before! Thank You!! It always seems to boil down to trusting the child, trusting the child, trusting the child… 🙂 love it.

    1. Thanks, Chelsie! Yes, trusting the child is just about everything one needs to know about child care.

  3. Another great post Janet! I love how you provided so many areas where we as caregivers might trip up, along with corrections. Things I will definitely try to stay aware of. I really enjoy practicing RIE and find myself at a point where I am constantly mindful of how I interact with my son (as well as how others interact with him, or with their own children). Sometimes it takes a conscious effort, but I hope my actions and communications will get smoother with continued practice. I see so many great things happening as a result of this approach every day, and again want to thank you for putting your wonderful thoughts out there. Wish I could share every great moment with you! Here’s two from just today. We started an art class today at our local Gymboree. While most of the other parents molded clay, colored and painted for their children, I sat next to my son and pretty much did nothing. Let him create and discover without my interpretation. Here’s the result: when he was painting and the teacher offered snack, the other children hurried over to the table. My guy (who loves snacks) was so engrossed in HIS work that he kept right on painting. He saw the other children eating, but chose to stick with his project until he was satisfied. Our second moment was after class, we had time for some open play in the gym. I was nearby talking to the manager but not in as close proximity as I usually stay when he is climbing on equipment. I have a tendency to stay within reaching distance to spot him, as I want to prevent him from falling or slipping. I hung back today because the gym was very empty and he seemed very confident in his climbing. He was on a structure with three different slides, one of which being wavy and quite fast. He knows how to slide (he’s almost 2) but he tends to be hesitant and often avoids them. I never force him or overly encourage him to slide, whereas sometimes my husband notices other children younger than him sliding and tries to push him a little more. I always encourage his dad to let him be, telling him that he’ll do it when he’s ready. Lo and behold, today, when I was watching him from a distance but not right there at his side, he clambered up the structure and down the slide repeatedly, and the fast wavy one at that! I think maybe having that extra space from me removed some unintended pressure or insecurity I was sending out, and it resulted in his greater, not lesser, confidence. I thought, “Janet would be proud!”

    1. I’m totally proud, Nicole, and you should be, too. I love that I’m sort of out there sending you encouraging vibes in these situations.:o) These are both great stories. I think I’m going to compile some of these stories together for a post. We learn so much from each others’ “aha” experiences, don’t you think? Thanks so much for sharing!

      1. Yes! I think hearing real life stories really helps illustrate how RIE works day to day. I’ve been actually thinking of starting a thread in the forum where we can share some of these moments as our children grow, and as we as caregivers grow as well!

        1. That sounds awesome, Nicole! If you do that I will call attention to it on FB.

  4. Hi Janet,
    I’m new to RIE but all the reading I’ve been doing is really resonating with me.
    My 33 month old is going through a phase of “but i’m just a baby” (her words). Sometime she tries to take steps and stops midway saying “I can’t walk, help me”. She is wanting me to feed her often, and vehemently refuses the concept of potty training when anyone suggests she tries it (I’ve no issue with this, she will do it when ready, but thought I’d throw it in to paint the picture for you). She often asks me to pick her up (this sometimes coincides with times when she is faced with a small challenge-physical or emotional) – the phrase is like her “SOS”. When I’m not holding her 6 month old brother, I can oblige and ask her if she needs a cuddle, to which she replies “yes”. However a lot of the time my back is hurting from carrying the baby a lot of the day, so I try to cuddle her sitting down, but if I sit to cuddle my daughter she demands “pick me up and stand up!” What is your suggestion as a response to this? I understand the underlying issues-arrival of a sibling and feeling displaced and wanting to reclaim my time and arms, but I feel that my arms, cuddles and attention, whilst seated should be enough…. She is getting too heavy to pick up for more than a minute for a cuddle. I try to find moments throughout our day for spontaneous cuddles, kisses and times to read books where we can be close and touch and refuel, but that doesn’t seem to be enough for her right now. Any words if wisdom? Thanks.

    1. Hi Stellina! After reading your first sentence or two, my immediate thought was, “Let me guess…you have a new baby, right?” This is very common, normal and healthy behavior, as I think you know.

      Regarding picking her up and standing, I totally agree with you that “arms, cuddles and attention, whilst seated should be enough.” Those things are certainly enough to fulfill her needs for cuddling and attention, but her “wants” are something else altogether. It really is perfectly okay for her not to always get what she wants as long as her feelings are acknowledged. In fact it is healthy, healthy, healthy for us to define our boundaries (this is a relationship, after all). So, I would respond with something like, “I hear you wanting me to stand up with you in my arms, but that isn’t comfy for me. I would love to sit with you next to me, on my lap or in my arms. Which would you like?” If you say this with assurance (no guilt!), then I’m sure she will let go of this particular struggle quite quickly.

      I would definitely schedule special time for your daughter each day…and not just leave this up to spontaneity. It doesn’t have to be long (15-20 minutes would be okay) and it doesn’t have to be scheduled on the clock. It can be after the baby goes down to bed or some other time that you and your daughter can count on. Then, when she wants your attention and you can’t give it, you can say, “I wish I could hold you right now, but I can’t. I’m really looking forward to our time together after dinner to do whatever you want.”

      1. My first two were only 19 months apart and the oldest hardly napped. I knew she needed special time with me. So the baby’s nap times were her special times. Once, she screamed in excitement and woke him up. As soon as she realized his nap time and HER time were over, it didn’t happen again – she had a vested interest in his naps. I managed to carve out some other shorter times each day for each of them, but his nap time was hers.

  5. I think this is a very important topic, so thanks for covering it. There are so many adults out there who are defeatist and it really saddens me when I see children defeated. I think this is the number one reason, which you missed: That the parents don’t model a can-do and curious attitude.

    Babies and toddlers are one thing, and they are naturally motivated to try and develop, mainly because there are things to get involved in and experience. However, it quickly becomes the case that toddlers achieve most everything that’s around, especially when the parents are …. hate to say it …. boring. You mention Dweck, who makes a great point about mindsets, but you’ll notice that children in her studies are challenged. The existence of challenge is the key. The child will never be afraid to climb those stairs if they don’t exist. But neither will the child even be ready. All parents know how to walk, which is why all children learn how to walk, but many parents are also frightened of trying things, which is why many children are frightened trying things.

    1. Alex, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I don’t quite agree that parental modeling is as key to motivation as it is to other aspects of development. Those of us who spend lots of time observing infants and toddlers have learned that children are naturally driven to seek the challenges they are ready for and interested in. Why do children lose this drive? I don’t think it’s because they have boring parents.

      Although I agree that modeling and a “can-do, curious attitude” has value, I don’t believe that children walk because their parents do (which would mean that earlier walkers have “better” models) or that they are necessarily interested in the challenges parents are interested in… These things are inwardly motivated. And this is actually where parents can get confused and discourage what they mean to encourage. Encouraging motivation, curiosity, and the confidence to try is about honoring our child’s unique inborn timetable, gifts and interests, which is more about acknowledging our child’s individuality, trusting, and giving it “space” than it is about modeling curiosity.

    2. Hi Janet,
      I’ve been following you for quite some time and I love reading your articles – they really resonate with me and since discovering RIE I’m always trying to parent with respect and allow my 2.5year old son to develop at his own pace. Of course I am not perfect and I do make mistakes but I try to reflect and learn and improve. What I find hardest is, dealing with my husband and our extended families. For example my son went through a phase where he was really keen on drawing. I started drawing to entertain him when he was a baby and later it occured to me that perhaps this created pressure for him as he didn’t yet have the skills to draw recognisable pictures but we always drew for him when he asked and he would watch us keenly. I would allow him to scribble as he wished. One day something changed and suddenly he was able to draw recognisable images with control that is very advanced for his age. Some weeks later he was drawing with his father and had completed a drawing of a character when my husband pointed out to him that he had forgotton one of the facial features and showed him where it should be. I later told ny husband that he should not have done that because there is no right or wrong with a drawing and it doesn’t matter whether we perceive something is missing. But he always dismisses such things and says it doesn’t matter and that it will not impact our son and that I’m being extreme. It bothers me to see these sorts of things happen all the time and I don’t know what I can do to shield my son from it. What can one do in such a situation? Any advice would be very much appreciated!

  6. Dear Janet,

    First, I have to tell you how much more I’ve enjoyed parenting since becoming an avid reader of your blog. Things like time-outs, which never felt right to me and which I kept putting off instituting despite the prolific use of them by everyone I know, now don’t stress me out…I don’t use them at all and don’t plan to. Better yet, I have fewer situations where I might have needed to. I have a precocious three year old daughter and a loving 12 month old son, Cooper. My question today is about Cooper. His favorite activity is throwing food on the floor. Even when it’s food he likes, he throws it and then yells because he doesn’t have it. I typically stay calm and confident and ask him nicely to please not throw his food. I’ve left it on the floor and let him yell about it, and I’ve tried continuously picking it up and putting it back on his plate (off a clean floor of course 🙂 . I’ve tried saying no, both calmly and (although I try not to) occasionally not so calmly when he’s pushed me too far. Nothing seems to alter the behavior. I worry about ending mealtime as soon as he starts to do it, as he’s underweight. I know he understands much of what I say to him, but although he tries to please in many aspects of our day together, at mealtime he looks me right in the eye, holds the food out over the side of the high chair, and drops it. It makes me want to tear my hair out and the cleanup is monstrous. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi AJ! “I have to tell you how much more I’ve enjoyed parenting” is the most gratifying comment I could receive…so thank you…and yay!

      Your little guy’s behavior is common for children in highchairs. (For more about that and another way to approach mealtime that you might not have thought of, here’s a post: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2010/01/baby-table-manners/ )

      Tell him before mealtime begins that you want him to let you know as soon as he’s done and ready to leave the highchair. Also mention that if he throws food down, you will consider that an “I’m done” (which it usually is, at least in the beginning, before this becomes a game). Then, when he throws the food down, say matter-of-factly, “Thank you for telling me you’re done eating.” And pick up his plate. If he strongly objects, give him another chance (because this is brand new to him at this point). “Oh, you weren’t done? Okay. Please don’t throw the food, because that means you are done.”

      I understand that his weight is a concern, but that is all the more reason not to turn eating into a situation where you are doing everything you can to keep him eating. That usually backfires. It might “work” temporarily, but you might also create some very unhealthy eating habits, struggles, and emotional pressure around food. If you’re too nervous to be firm and confident about this change at mealtime, try it for a snack first, so that he learns the routine. Babies can understand this, but they need CLARITY!

  7. Thanks for this article Janet! My 26 month old does this often but most of the time when she is tired and does it out of frustration. When she’s in a bad mood and tries something she get’s more frustrated easily and yells “I can’t do it” and starts crying. In this example, if I try to offer her suggestions as to what she could try she usually either goes into a tantrum, throws the objects out of frustration, or refuses and self-soothes herself by sucking on her fingers. Anything I can do to help her in these times, or is just being there and being present for her the answer? Thanks!

    1. Great question, Cheryl. I think it’s safest not to help unless asked. Instead, acknowledge, acknowledge, acknowledge the feelings, be available to her and leave it at that. “Wow, that’s so frustrating!”, etc. This lets her know that you totally understand…and might make her feel like reaching out to you for comfort rather than using her fingers. Helping her the way you’ve been doing can be perceived as criticism or pressure…believe it or not. I know you don’t mean it that way!

  8. This posting is just what I needed. My almost 3 year old, for the past 2 months or so, has been saying “I can’t” to what seems like every activity she tries. I am often left thinking that there is something inherently wrong with her being so critical of herself and this article has led me to believe that I may have projected such criticism. I happen to be a perfectionist and somewhat of a hovering parent. All of the points made resonate with me and what I find troubling is that she is turned off by many things right now, even a new activity, which I think would not pose a threat. I say things like, “Lets try again” or “You did it” but sometimes this too sends her into a tail spin. Any further thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Carmen, I think it’s wonderful that you are seeing this and trying to figure out what to do. I know you mean “Let’s try again” as encouragement, but this is definitely creating pressure…and these words are indicating to your daughter that you have an agenda for her to accomplish the activity, whatever it is. And you’re right about your projections having an effect. Almost everything we are thinking about our young children is perceived by them. Their radar is that sensitive.

      Your awareness is a great first step. Next, back way off. Let go and let her do nothing. Let her do things that you know are way beneath her abilities. Let her choose. Don’t even make suggestions. When she says “I can’t” about something that she’s chosen, take her word for it. “You feel like you can’t do that right now. That’s okay. You’ll do it when you’re ready.” Those can be your words, or something along those lines, but definitely make this your attitude. Saying the words will remind you to relax and trust her.

      This approach will help her to become the girl you appreciate as she is…the girl who will no doubt surprise you with the unexpected things she can do. And this will feel better to you, too. Carmen, please let me know how this goes…

  9. What powerful truths. This has resonance for mental health, emotional intelligence, learning, and so much more. Again, sharing.

  10. I have an aha moment to share. My 21mo was terrified of water running out of the faucet, whether it was the sink for hand-washing or the tub for baths. I respected that feeling, acknowledging she was afraid and letting her wait until the tub was filled before putting her in it, or using a washcloth to wash her hands instead of putting them in the running water.

    My older daughter wanted very much to go to a water spray park near our house, so we gave it a try. My 21mo watched her big sister and the other kids play in the spray for quite some time before cautiously approaching, and to my surprise, it wasn’t long before she was playing in it, too.

    Immediately she was no longer afraid of the faucets at home. She just needed to explore the running water at her own pace, in an environment where she was free to walk away.

    1. I love it, Skyfire! Thank you for sharing this story.

  11. This was a timely post for me as recently my son has been asking for help more and I was wondering what to do about this. For example, today he was playing with a jewellery box with drawers, which he is totally fascinated by, and was handing me a drawer and then repeatedly pointing to where it went. I have seen him put them in himself, but he finds it difficult and frustrating.

    On the whole, I try and give him verbal advice (although it’s hard to describe how to fit a drawer!) rather than do it for him and acknowledge that it is frustrating, but he usually ignores this and keeps asking me to do it in a more and more desperate manner. I’m not quite sure what to do at this point. I usually do help him eventually which probably doesn’t help in the long-term.

    1. Juliette, I think the key is not to “invest”, which means perceiving these situations in a manner that usually doesn’t come naturally to adults. Young children take their cues from us. If we really don’t believe it matters whether or not the drawer makes it back to its home, our child has more emotional “space” to choose to persist (because he finds this challenge interesting) or just leave it unfinished.

      Since it sounds like the drawer has become a bit of a focus, I would try to completely let go of it mattering and concentrate on acknowledging your little guy’s feelings. “WOW, you’re trying so hard to put that drawer in… That’s really tough to do. Yikes! That’s hard.” Try to stay with this and reflect the situation in a very relaxed manner. Most toddlers are sitting on a lot of feelings that need releasing. Consider these feelings about the drawer a good opportunity for him to vent!

      1. Thank you Janet – really good to have your perspective. It’s definitely useful to think of his feeling about the drawer or similiar as an opportunity to vent. He’s been wanting me to feed him at meals a lot recently too, even though he can feed himself, and it had been starting to worry me how much he was asking for help.

  12. I lead my life empowering parents and children……I love the way you are empowering parents , children can do so much more than they even know!

    1. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Melinda. I agree that children are more naturally capable than most of us imagine.

  13. Thank you for your posts. I’m coming up short with the way to express how much you’ve helped me, so I’ll just leave it at thank you, thank you!

    My son is 5months old, and although he cannot say “I can’t”, I sometimes feel that this is what he’s trying to communicate to me. He has been rolling to his belly for about 2 months now, but when he gets himself on his belly, he inevitably ends up getting frustrated and upset. He cries and makes eye contact with me, and I’m never sure what to do in this situation. Twice he has rolled himself back to his back (with several weeks between occurrences) out of sheer chance, but it’s not something he’s been able to repeat intentionally. How long should I let him fuss once he’s put himself on his belly? What is the best way to intervene when I do step in? Roll him over? Pick him up? When he’s looking to me while crying I’m not ever sure if I’m doing more harm by helping, thus sending the message that he isn’t capable of doing it himself, or by not helping, thus sending the message that Mommy isn’t responsive. It seems like such a small matter, but I really am stuck and would love your insight.

    1. Lisa, thanks for your lovely sentiments… Your boy’s experience is extremely common. Almost all the naturally developing babies I have known get a little stuck at this point. This phase will pass very soon, because your son will figure out how to roll to his back, and he will also build the strength he needs to be comfortable on his tummy for a much longer period.

      Whenever your boy communicates, especially if he makes eye contact, respond! “I hear you. You sound uncomfortable. Are you getting tired in that position?” If you see him trying to roll back, acknowledge, “Seems like you’re trying to go to your back again. You’re working really hard.” If your empathetic words don’t calm him, offer, “Would you like me to pick you up, so you can take a break?” Then, pick him up. I prefer this to rolling him to his back again. Give him a break in your arms and then, if he seems to have the energy, ask if he’d like to go down to play again. If he seems okay with that, place him on his back.

      As I said, this transitional period will pass soon. Keep up the wonderful work!

      1. Thank you, this makes a lot of sense, and it is nice to hear that this is a common occurrence.

        I am amazed by your thoughtful and thorough responses to each person. You truly are changing the world one parent at a time.

  14. This is such a timely article for me right now! I have been trying to incorporate more RIE principles into my interactions with my children since I found your site awhile ago, but it is still so far from feeling natural and I often find myself at a complete loss. I have been getting frustrated because my 4 year old daughter has stopped doing many things for herself, including picking out her clothes, dressing herself, feeding herself, buckling her seatbelt, etc. This has made mealtimes, morning routines, and many other times stressful as my husband and I have both been telling her, “I know you know how to do x, just do it!” And she cries and refuses. I have been completely in the dark as to why- until I read this article and realized that her change in behavior conicides with my return to school (my daughter and her younger brother now go to a sitter two days a week for the first time). So I’ll keep asking but if she says she can’t I’ll smile and give her the attention and reassurance she wants by helping her without argument, and trust that when her world feels steadier to her, she’ll do for herself again! 🙂

    1. Great news, Selina. I think this new approach will work wonders. Please let me know how it goes!

  15. As a preschool teacher this was often a struggle. Early in the year I would teach and model the phrase, “it’s hard but I’ll try” while basically following the guidelines you’ve described. I always had at least a few parents comment on how thrilled they were at their children’s newfound independence. Great post!

  16. Firstly I want to say a huge thank you. I stumbled across your site when trying to find answers to how better deal with my 28 month old and her new response to having toys snatched away from her. All of our little friends are either 4+ months older than her or have older siblings. Which usually means they all hit or figure things out a little bit before her. That post changed everything for me! If I could teach my child to say no and stick up for herself then surely I could use no towards my toddler when I didn’t want her to do something! It was a HUGE A-ha moment and the start of something beautiful.

    A little background Janet. I’m sorry if this gets long but I feel the need to express my life changing week that has 100% to do with a total stranger (yourself) and how it is changing my families life. I began as a parent who never watched tv, that played with their kids, that believed in being straight with them, that explained, no time outs, no spankings, cloth diapers, no raised voice, lots if attention and floor time and activities, I tried to not put my views on my child and let her feel things as she was feeling them. I wanted so badly to be a “good” parent. My toddler has never been an “easy” child. She has her own agenda and I love her free spirit. It would take us hours to put her to sleep weither that was a nap or nighttime. I never wanted to push it or let her cry and was of the mindset that this was a short lived stage and one day she would go to bed easily. 8 months ago our son arrived into the world and her life was turned upside down. Regression doesnt even seem to come close to describing how badly she took it. After a few months of my son being born and living on very little sleep I turned on the tv. I was so tired, tired of being a parent, tired of explaining why I didn’t want my toddler to do something (stand on the table), tired of night time taking 4+ hours, tired of my dh working evenings and baring the brunt of my child’s needs, Tired of carrying my 2 children everywhere cause my toddler is a runner. it started out with tv in the mornings and slowly, before I knew it, it never turned off. I turned it on so I could turn off. That’s where I was at a mere 2 weeks ago. After finding your post and seeing how it worked wonders with my 2 year old I spent the next week reading through the threads and comments every chance I got. I have a lot of patience in my life but what I seemed to have problems with was any form of discipline. I didn’t want to be the one upsetting my children! Welcome to the world of parenting! Now that ive had some time to process everything that ive read it seems obvious. My daughter has caught on to my frustration and her frustration has grown along side of my own. The way she acts is the way I feel. Tired, unheard, misunderstood,…but I’m the parent right? I can handle my frustrations without loosing my cool. We have been signing since birth and she knows sooooo many words however her speech isn’t even close to kids her age. She wants to communicate with me and understands everything I say to her but most days the only words I hear are “help, hug, no, yes, more”. Communication is so tough right now!!!! She sees all her little friends talking sentences and I can only imagine what is going through her head. Possibly the same thing that is going through mine. “I can’t wait to be able to talk to you like that!” sniff** after reading about encouraging ways to help your child talk I had the most beautiful moment with her. After putting her brother down for the night and finishing her night time routine I said “I’m having a hard time understanding your words. I’m listening. You are trying hard to talk to me and tell me the things you want and feel. It is frustrating for you when i dont understand what you are saying. Talking is very hard work and you must be proud of yourself. Tomorrow I will try to listen more. Would you like that?” Well Janet I’m pretty sure the world stopped spinning cause she just starred at me in awe. Then quickly said “yeah” and climbed on top of me to give me a big hug! I barely held it together and later that night I had a huge cry about it! I will remember this moment for the rest of my life and you are responsible!

    Since everything that I have tried so far has had huge success I have some questions. I was so happy to see this post this morning as I think this is our biggest challenge. Everything is “help” right now or “up” or “hug” and I’m sure if she thought about saying “I can’t” she would say that all the time. I try to help her, try to talk her through something but sometimes I don’t even know what she wants me to do cause she ain’t talking! she will grab my hand and try to make it move with her will but NO WORDS! (I should mention at this point that she has been saying and pointing out letters since she was 16 months old and can easily spell 3 letter words in the tub with her toy ABC’s and knows thousands of signs) the words are all there but she refuses! She gets so frustrated and ends up screaming over and over “hug hug hug hug try try try” it is heartbreaking to watch and i try very hard to not get emotional. How do I encourage her without hurting her, without making her feel like she is “failing” at something?

    Thank you again for everything you do and helping this one momma better communicate with the loves of my life! I am eternally grateful! Xo

    1. Hi Heather! Wow, thanks so much your kind, generous and heartwarming comment. I’m so glad to hear that you are making progress with your daughter, learning how to support her in her struggles with peers, and realizing the magical effects of acknowledging your little girl’s feelings.

      I can’t emphasize enough how important discipline is for your children. Clear boundaries and limits will channel “difficult” into strength and confidence and make a “free spirit” much freer and more joyous. Your reticence to set firm limits (with abundant empathy and acknowledgements for your daughter’s “disagreement”) might be at the root of your issues with language…because it is at the root of just about everything. Toddlers, especially when they have a new baby in their lives, feel off kilter much of the time… They need more than ever the secure, grounded feeling that comes when parents are strong, capable leaders.

      I’m a little confused about what you mean by her “refusing” to talk… The key to this issue may be in the way you are handling it. Are you getting frustrated about her not speaking? Do you think she feels a little pressured? I wouldn’t be so sure that she “sees all her little friends talking sentences” and is thinking “I can’t wait to be able to talk to you like that!” sniff**” My sense is that this is your projection…and perhaps you are investing too much in her talking. Your daughter would certainly be picking up on that and it could lead her to unconsciously (or consciously) resist your wishes, since that’s what healthy toddlers usually need to do. If she has not been able to engage in healthy power struggles with you in other areas (because you have backed off on setting limits), this may be where she is doing it.

      If this is the case, then I would (again) not shy away from setting boundaries, but totally back off about her speech. Try not to worry at all or get frustrated. Just trust her, let go and accept this and it will give her room to start speaking the language she obviously has absorbed.

      Regarding “help” and “up”, yes, your daughter does need more help and nurturing since her brother is in the picture, so I would grant her requests happily when you can, but also very confidently tell her when you can’t, or don’t choose to. “I see you saying “up”, but I can’t pick you up right now. When I’m finished with the baby, I look forward to sitting together. If she screams, try to stay calm. “I know how hard it is when I can’t give you what you want.” Don’t feel the slightest bit guilty or tentative about defining boundaries for your girl.

      If you don’t know what she wants, but you are available to help, ask her to please try to show you any way she can. Again, don’t panic or get dramatic about this. Stay calm and patient and just do your best to understand. “Hmmm… I see you pointing to the bowl, but I’m not sure what that means. Does it mean you would like cereal?”

  17. Katie, Yes, modeling is probably the best way to program kids brains to rebound from failure, learn from mistakes, take on conflict, handle disappointment, love challenges.

  18. As a preschool aide I have 3 yr olds 2x/wk and on our other 2 days I am with 2 yr olds for 45in during recess. There are a few 2’s who are having extreme difficulty separating. Given the “wait” recommendation, is it better to let them cry w/o any notice or to hold their hand , acknowledge their sadness and walk around hoping something or some other child will catch their attention? I do show them puzzles, crayons and such but seems to only cease the crying for a min or so. It’s been 3 wks-2 days a week and realization mommy does come back is not there.

    1. Don’t ignore the crying! Be available for support as they wish…holding hands and acknowledging the feelings sounds fine. BUT, don’t feel pressured to try to get the child to stop crying. Rather than by showing him or her toys, I would meet the child where he or she IS, meaning keep acknowledging the depth of the feelings so they get fully released. “You’re really upset still about your mom leaving. That is so hard. It hurts to have mom leave when you want her to stay.” Be still and available for a bit of focused time together and a hug when you can. I realize this is counter-intuitive, but it is healing. And this approach works to comfort the child and create a bond of trust between you.

  19. I was wondering…. At what age will this typically end!?

    1. Interesting, Dani… I think some people unfortunately carry this “I can’t” attitude with them their whole life… These first years are extremely important!

      1. As a college teacher I wholeheartedly agree that some people say “I can’t” well into adulthood.

  20. A great article which addresses a question my wife and I have had as to why our 3yr old daughter is continually complaining and whining/crying about not being able to put on her shoes or dress herself when we know she can. We have tried everything from: “Come on, show Mommy / Daddy how you can do it.” to “Stop this silliness…I know can do it.” Which apparently may only be placeing more stress on her. We did recently move half-way across the country and she is in a new school….both points mentioned under the one possible cause: needing a bit more nurturing. We have been trying to practice some benign neglect out of fear that we were babying our daughter and hovering too much. Although we don’t want to contribute to an overly dependent child, perhaps we are now over-compensating and hitting her with higher expectations too suddenly. We are grateful for this new perspective and will try to exercise a new approach based on this advice. Thanks!

  21. And not sure how I express this but one of my twins will insist on doing it himself as he’s learning something but the minute he knows how to do it, he no longer has a desire and often has a great distaste for doing it himself. Once bored with a task he’s mastered (from doing up a zipper, putting on shoes to wiping his bottom) he will start to say, “I don’t know how” or “you do it” or “My arms are broken” etc. It’s like he knows he can do it, so why bother.

    I’be been great at supporting the effort but think there might need to be some more emphasis on the result.

    Some of it, I know, comes from wanting ‘me’. I’m a single working parent with twins so if he can put on his own jacket but I have to help his brother then I’m spending a bit less time with him.

    1. Selmada, I suggest honesty, which means sometimes you do have time and your hands aren’t full and you can happily do it for him. Other times, you’re unable to and so you tell him honestly, “I wish I could help, but I need to do such-in-such right now.”

      Whatever he says, I would always acknowledge it. “You feel like you have broken arms and can’t do it! You really, really want me to do it, but I cannot.” Understand his perspective rather than getting annoyed by it, but keep honoring your own needs and personal boundaries. Stay calm.

  22. Hi Janet,

    Appreciated reading this post today, as I think we are currently experiencing a ‘can’t’ phase with our 1.5yr old daughter.

    She’s naturally strong-willed and independent and so we’ve embraced that and we’ve let her explore and go forth as she wants to. She’s just started stringing a couple of words together and we’re relishing the increasing communication. But recently, she’s melting in puddles of ‘I can’t’ despair over things/activities she has previously done without our assistance. It’s pretty cute and sad to watch though I try not to laugh at the cuteness as she is definitely in earnest.
    Often it feels like she’s hit a wall in her confidence with words, especially as her vocab is exploding, and and so she’s also lost a bit of confidence in doing things she previously did without hesitation.

    So I’m taking your paragraph on ‘nuturing’ and we’ll run with that for a while and see if that helps my girl in her stuck moments.

    Thanks for the recap on when to help and when to back off!

    1. Yes, I would definitely go with “nurturing” and, as always, acknowledging her feelings, “You tried to do that, but you couldn’t and you seem very frustrated and upset. That’s disappointing, isn’t it? Would you like me to help?”

  23. Hi Janet,

    I love reading your blogs and I ran across this one today and it really resonates with me. I have a five yo daughter who has repeatedly asked (for 2 years) for violin lessons. (Her daddy is a musician) I looked into lessons and was told that she could be taught at 5. I did not push the issue, and sure enough on her 5th birthday I asked her what she would like and she said “remember mom, I’m five, I get to take violin lessons!” so we got her a violin and into beginner lessons. She loves going to her lessons and is learning very quickly. her lessons are half hour a week, and she is asked to practice 5 minutes a day. My problem is in getting her to practice her 5 minutes. When I remind her its time to practice, she says “she cant do it” and sometimes this ends in a tantrum. I have concerns that while she is physically ready to play, she may not be mentally/emotionally. I’ve suggested we wait until she’s older, and this really upsets her because she “loves playing the violin!” her words. How do I encourage her desire to play and learn, without pushing and frustrating her. I do not want to squash her desire to play, especially as her teacher says she’s very good, but I also dont want to waste her teachers time/my money because she refuses to practice? (I really do believe she doesnt want to practice because she’s feeling pressured, but Im not sure how to overcome that)

    1. Hi Jammie! Others might disagree with my answer, but here goes…

      I would do all I can to encourage this lovely interest by backing off on asking her to practice. Practicing instruments is tedious, let’s face it. The only thing I might mention (lightly, and probably no more than once) is that the more she practices the easier and better she will be able to play the pieces when the teacher is there.

      Then, let go and let this be between her and her teacher. He will notice whether she has practiced or not…and he can be the one to encourage her. I think you might be surprised that she’ll eventually do some practicing on her own…in her way.

  24. I just came across this post, and is so timely for me. My daughter is 22 months old, and I think that the one area that I have failed RIE 101 is that I tend to do too many things for her simply because she asked for my help. Now I’m starting to see a pattern of her being unwilling to do things on her own, although I know that she can do them but doesn’t want to. I’m really not sure how to navigate that. I try to encourage her, ask her to try, but it often ends in a tantrum and then we are trying to overcome that. Help!

    1. Hi Shannon, without a specific example, it’s tough for me to advise you… Did you read the remedies I suggest in this post?

  25. Hi Janet, after seeing your reply I just read through all the comments/examples and had an “aha” moment that I think my daughter is clinging to me (and thus asking for help doing things that I know she can do alone) because we recently moved to a new house and she is transitioning to the potty. I often write off how difficult change can be because I’m used to that being a big part of my life (we are a military family). However, I’m still concerned that I’m not doing enough to foster her independence because she rarely wants to do things by herself and would much rather be glued to me all day. She doesn’t really want to do much by herself, but I am guilty of doing a lot for her and I think she’s used to that. If this still isn’t enough info, I’ll try to provide an example if something comes up over the next couple of days.

  26. Vivie's Dada says:


    Your article got me thinking about a particular activity my 2 year old daughter and I have begun to share with each other, drawing with crayons.
    Often times I ask if she would like to draw in her new sketch book and she communicates to me that she does. Most times I will ask if she would like me to draw a particular object or person and she excitedly says “yeh yeh yeh” and so I do. A lot of times she will then begin pointing at different objects, our dog, or Momma requesting me to draw them. I should say that I am by no means an artist, but of course to a 2 year old I may seem to be. After reading your article I began reflecting on our activity and it occurred to me that she doesn’t join in frequently but seems to be more interested in attempting to verbalize who or what the object is when I’ve completed the drawing, followed by a request to draw something else.
    Occasionally she will scribble a little on the paper over the drawings, and of course I will encourage her to do so. In my attempt to have fun with her, and help her discover new possibilities, I now wonder if perhaps I’m doing the opposite by unintentionally causing her to feel intimidated because she is unable to draw at the same level. I would be interested to hear your thoughts. It breaks my heart to think I may be causing those types of feelings within her.

  27. Janet, after reflecting a bit more, it sometimes seems like my daughter doesn’t want to do things on her own, she’d much rather have me do it — dressing her, feeding her, etc. I hear so many people talk about the “I do it myself” toddler mantra, and I just haven’t seen that yet.

    1. Shannon, the moving and potty learning are a big deal…and wanting extra nurturing through these transitions makes perfect sense. The only part that stands out for me is “feeding her”. Can you describe how you feed her?

  28. Hi Janet, thank you SO MUCH for the continued dialogue on this. I really appreciate it.

    You asked about feeding time, and I’ll describe that because I think that is one place where I often see her wanting me to do it instead of doing it on her own.

    Feeding time has always had a little bit of angst associated with it, because I’ve always sensed that my daughter wasn’t quite happy with the way that it was going. From the beginning of starting solids, I sensed that she didn’t like to be in her high chair because she wasn’t happy. When she became more mobile, we let her have freedom — to graze, and eat as she pleased. Sometimes she would want to sit in our lap and be fed, so that was another option. It is important to note that she is a very good eater and really likes food, so that is not an issue, it is just finding out HOW she is happiest eating it. She is now 22 months, and I introduced a toddler table where I always put her food. She can come and go as she pleases, but would rather that I sit with her the entire time and feed her, and be available whenever she wants to pass by the table for a grazing session. She CAN and WILL feed herself, but most of the time she says, “mama do it.” I don’t see a real desire in her to feed herself, and this spills over into other areas as I mentioned, including dressing herself. She says “mama do it” a lot, including when she gets frustrated with a lego or a puzzle piece. I sense that she is struggling with the transition from “babyhood” to “toddlerland,” and is clinging to me to help her navigate that. I’m with her every second of every day, and I love that. But I sense that maybe I’m with her TOO much and have done TOO much for her in the past, which has resulted in her relying on me too heavily. Is it just something that will pass, or is there something that I should be actively doing? I guess that is my ultimate question in this situation.

    One thing that concerns me is that I hear so much about the “I do it myself” toddler mantra, but I just don’t see that desire in her and that concerns me. Her mantra right now is “mama do it for me.” And I think I do it too much. Help.

    1. Shannon, one of the basics we teach at RIE is that children need our full attention during “caregiving” activities like mealtimes, diapering, dressing, baths, etc. It sounds like your daughter is letting you know that she needs to be connected with you during meals and dressing. I would make meals a focused time to spend together (while she sits until she’s done), rather than leaving food out all day for her to graze on. This will not only build your connection, it will also foster healthy eating habits (here’s a post about that: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2010/08/mindful-mouthfuls-helping-our-babies-learn-healthy-eating/ ) . I think you’ll discover that if you give her your full attention during meals and other caregiving activities (putting away the phone, etc.), she will be much more interested in feeding herself and being more autonomous generally… She will be “satiated” by your presence.

      Regarding puzzles and legos, children only ask us to do these things because we have done them for the child in the past. My suggestion is to stop “helping” with puzzles, legos, drawing, playdoh, etc. If she says, “mommmy do it”, respond, “I know I’ve sometimes done it for you, but now I will leave to you to do, or not, as you wish.”

  29. So helpful! Thank you so much!

  30. Razvan I. says:

    Hi, was reading this article and trying to find some similarities with what happens now, in my family.

    My daughter is 5,5 years old and doesn’t want ot go at the kindergarden anymore. Moreover, she says that she’s affraid to go. Step by step as we discussed together, she reveals 2 things: the fright actually feels like a grief or a soorow about us not beeing with her at the kindergardem, and second, at class is a new governess [not replacing old one, but suplimentary] and she doesn’t like this new teacher because of her voice [harsh although the governess doesn’t have a particular thing with my daughter]

    Now, we’re some how confused about what we’ll have to do, because though we’re talking with her constantly trying to show her how much we understand her fear and trying to explain that even we are not phisicaly there we’re still thinking at her and missing her constantly, she keep crying in the evening before, and in the morning when we have to go to kindergarten.
    Can you give us some advices?
    [please excuse my grammar, my English skills are not so strong]

  31. I have a ten year old boy with a huge “I can’t attitude” I wish I had of read up on it earlier. The main issue for me is his writing, getting him to write instantly provokes an “I can’t”. It’s not so much the writing (his writing is well below the average for his age) but the pressure of thinking of something to write or getting it done in time. I have tried being patient and thinking that it will come to him, everyone learns to write eventually. However he is in grade 5 this year and with only two years until high school he needs to get up to get over this or I worry he will be held back. Any suggestions for older kids where this attitude has become very set in? Thank you.

  32. My 4 year old tells me he doesn’t want to go to school anymore. I know we have had a lot of changes (2 siblings born in 2 years, moved into a townhome to accommodate our growing family and now we will be moving back to America this summer -he and all my children have been born in Japan while stationed overseas). Could these be the reasons he wants me to teach him at home? Should I pull him out of school and homeschool him? He has been teased and called names and is now calling people names. He also has become more aggressive and says he is bored at school or cried because he misses me. I’m at a complete loss because RiE is new to us (I love it by the way, thank you!) and I read an article you posted on the 10 ways we hurt our children, and wonder if pulling him out would keep him from growing. He just isn’t the happy loving child I knew. We may have 3 young kids (4 yrs, almost 2 and 9 months), but I still feel like a re mom when it comes to my oldest. Thanks for all you do Janet! You are an inspiration.

  33. Janet, you are such a light! Thank you for sharing your wisdom!!!

    My question may seem off-the-wall, but I’ve been seriously wondering about it for a while now. I have 5 year old who wets the bed. And when I consider all the possible reasons, I get this nagging feeling that what is behind it is a mental habit/belief projected on to her by me. I was an “over-involved” parent for the first few years of her life. I have just started to understand that I get to honor her limits and feelings, and that’s it’s not all about chasing a result or accomplishment…

    I am positive she doesn’t know she’s wetting the bed – I mean she doesn’t purposely do it as a means to send a message or make a statement. She sleeps right through it and just wakes up wet. For whatever reason, only at night, her mind will not tell her to wake up, or register the urge to urinate.

    So, do you believe it is possible she may not have developed the connection between her brain and her bladder because she BELIEVES she can’t? She’s school-age now and I know she’s beginning to feel self-conscious about it… It saddens me and I’d love to better the situation if I can.
    Thank you so much!

    1. You should have her checked for constipation. Even if she’s pooping regularly, there could be a mass in her bowel that’s pressing on her bladder nerves and making her incontinent.

      Dr. Steve Hodges has a lot to say about this:




  34. My 5 year old says “I can’t” when it comes to dressing himself and other things that he definitely can do. I know he was helped too much when he was younger, is too catered too, and has two perfectionist parents. He definitely is too concerned about outcome and often will not do things unless he can do them correctly and easily. It’s a real problem for us that we just don’t know what to do with at this point. I end up dressing him because the alternative is him whining saying he can’t (even though he isn’t trying), resulting in his parents getting frustrated and angry, and not able to leave on time or have a child inside in his underwear all day.

  35. I’ve just discovered your site,and I love it. Exactly what I need in my search for how to be a better mom. Thank you!

  36. Dear Friends,
    What works for me sometimes is this – I say ‘I’ll help you in a minute or two when I can’, if I am truly willing to help eventually. Sometimes, the child will then go ahead and do it herself, if she can (cuz they don’t want to wait, and I’ve at least acknowledged her). And if they wait for it then 1) this is teaching patience, and 2) maybe they needed help that day, for reasons that Janet mentions above.
    It sort of adds a litmus test to the request.

  37. Debra King says:

    I am writing about my six year old son. He is extremely bright, reading nearly 2 years beyond his age. His teacher tells me he is one of the brightest children in the class. However, he cries a lot. It always happens when he can’t, or thinks he can’t do something. Can be silly things, like putting Lego together or trying to put his socks on. The most recent occasion was at his swimming lesson. He didn’t start to learn to swim until he was nearly five. He can swim 10 m on his back without a float. However when the teacher asks him to swim on his front without a float, he will do one stroke, withdraw his arms and say ‘I can’t do it’ and burst into tears. I did praise him a lot when he was little. This was because I had very little praise when I was growing up, and I was determined to have a different relationship with my children.

    I am at a loss how to handle this. We do have another child, a daughter who is two and half, and whilst my sons problem may have got a little worse since she was born, it has always been really bad anyway.

  38. Chandrima Sinha Roy says:

    My 3.7 yr old kid is becoming very stubborn, for that reason I sometimes scold him, please tell me other way so that he listen to me without scolding. please help me.

  39. Tara Kintz says:

    Janet- thank you for the contribution you are. Your influence has completely shifted how I parent and has made such a difference for our family, and those I share it with. I am currently sharing about RIE (to the best of my ability) with our new nanny so I can complete my dissertation. She has been learning very quickly and is committed to support the use of RIE with our son.
    My question is beyond reading this, blog, and your book, what would you suggest to support her learning around trusting natural development and becoming aware of the conditioned responses you mention?
    I am in the process of working with finding the balance between holding on and letting go that Magda Gerber talks about. Your suggestions about language to use with children are particularly helpful.

  40. I appreciate this article. We recently enrolled our 3 year old in preschool. At school she is socializing great and making friends. At home however our normally independent daughter who insisted on dressing & doing most things herself is suddenly needy, clingy and saying “mommy do this for me” all the time. It’s hard to not judge when we are feeling tired, stretched, and stressed. Trust her without judgement until she is ready to do these things on her own again is something I will try.

  41. Would any of this apply to a 6 year old? I’m reading this as more for a toddler or preschooler. My 6 year old is in kindergarten and when outside of the house is wonderfully well behaved. In the house she acts out a little more and I guess that is the way I would want it. She doesn’t have behavior issues in school and is very academically inclined. I was a single mother until she was 4 1/2. Now I have been dating and we got engaged. He moved into our house about 6 months ago and the wedding is in 2 weeks. My daughter is very excited and since her biological father was not really in the picture she loves this man as her father and he her. It is really wonderful to see. But within the last month she has been acting out a lot more at home. She is using “I can’t” and “I don’t want to” and her reasoning behind every defiance. I put her in time out just because she is hyper and it helps her calm down. I sit down on her level and explain to her what I expect and how she can act. I’m not sure the best approach to this behavior. Your #4 point hit home because of all the change going on in our life. Any other suggestions??

  42. I am so guilty of this. I have an almost 3 year old girl who is very bright, and used to respond so well to challenges. I’m sure I pushed her too much because her skill was nothing short of impressive. Now she constantly tells me she can’t, or even more sad for me, she sulks and whines about things that are supposed to be fun. Riding her balance bike is a huge issue, doing puzzles, any task where I attempt to ask her questions… It makes me both sad and frustrated, sad because I know my pressure (subconscious or not) has contributed to this and frustrated because I know she can do these things. I’m guilty of the over encouraging, and the more I suggest and encourage the harder she resists. She was so excited to get a bike and now she cries at the mere mention of riding ever since I switched from trike to bike mode. I changed it back but that didn’t help.
    I want to help change our relationship back to her feeling less pressure, but I’m not sure how. It’s to the point where I’m not enjoying things with her because even though I realized on my own that I needed to completely stop suggesting and exerting pressure of any sort, she hasn’t responded. Her bike just sits and I’ll occasionally ask if she’d like to ride and she immediately whines and says no. I tell her that’s ok, to let me know if she does and move on. She will ask for puzzles then repeatedly and purposefully put pieces in wrong and ask me to help. I have tried making it a game where I exaggerate how silly I am and put pieces in the wrong place, and even said I like watching you try, you work so hard. Mostly it ends in her whining and saying she wants me to do it. I’m so discouraged, have read all of your suggested books and articles, and can’t seem to break this cycle.

    I feel so bad my sweet girl doesn’t seem to be enjoying activities with me and I’m not sure how to change that. I’ve been doing a lot more mindful watching of her, and encouraging her to explore on her own by being present and observing, but I wish she would go back to doing the activities she used to enjoy, especially her bike and puzzles, or anything that’s challenging to her. I want to see her proud of herself but she’s resistant to trying now.

    1. Meg, I’m having a similar problem with my daughter. Did things ever get better? I’d love an update.

  43. fantastic article, Janet. As always such a great reminder to be calm, gentle and peaceful with our littlest loves. One question I have is, how do you handle critical situations where offering choice and/or patience isn’t an option or isn’t working? For example our 22 month old all of a sudden doesn’t want her toe nails cut. We’ve tried waiting it out, offering choices, reminding her she’s safe but every time we bring it up she cries. I don’t want to push her but they need to be cut for her own safety at this point. My husband says we should just bite the bullet, but I don’t like the message that sends. How would you handle it?

  44. Melissa Burke says:

    Thanks for this article. This is just what I needed today. It can be so hard to keep myself from becoming frustrated when Solomon won’t even try things I know he can do. He said this morning ” Mom I need a little break. People can’t do everything for themselves all the time” . That got me thinking. I will make good use of the info here.

  45. Hi Janet,

    We’ve raised our boys under this philosophy and it is rare when we hear the words, “I can’t,” which feels good. Generally, if we hear those words, they are legitimately breathed from our younger son who is facing the reality that there are some limitations in his abilities in relation to his big brother.

    A perfect example of this is on our climbing wall. The younger wants to be able to do what the older can. By gently holding the limit of not assisting him in climbing structures, I’ve been amazed to witness the incredible talents capable of a young child of two years. So thank you for providing this amazing insight into allowing children to reach their own abilities without our constant intervention. I think it’s difficult to know exactly when to step in and when to step back, but you are able to give parents a general guideline that creates the space for us to hone our own skills in determining the level of intervention in each particular encounter.

  46. Hi I have been reading all the post on this page and it’s just amazing to hear, I’m studying a nursing degree and in some of my subjects have learnt some of these things and also from reading other things like this. I will b the first to admit I helicoptered my son and think I still do. He is turning 6 in May and started prep last year. I had a gut feeling he was gonna b behind and yes he was he is now in grade one and very far behind all the other children. At home I’ve tried to explain to my partner about this style of parenting and even try to read him these post and wat not, he understands to a point but not properly. I only want the best for my son and I feel like I have hit a brick wall. I want to help him with school and try to get him to understand but he says the same thing that he can’t, has anyone got any tips that would help me out 🙁

  47. Hi, thanks for this article! My daughter is 4 and she loves to swim. She does pretty well by herself but I signed her up for swim lessons for her to get the correct technique and get to the next level so she can be even more independent in the pool. We have access to a pool we go to a lot so it is very important she have the skills to be a good swimmer. She was so excited about it and loved it the first 2 days (It is private lessons 4x a week for 20 minutes a lesson for 2 weeks). The 3rd day she would not put her shoes on (later I figured out it had nothing to do with the shoes, she just did not want to go). Said she did not want to go. I told her it was to help her become an ever better swimmer and it was important so she could be safe in the water. I had to take her throwing a fit in the car. When we got there, she had a death grip on me. I had to pry her off me, give her to her teacher and she proceeded to cry and scream for about 3 minutes then she was totally fine the rest of the lesson and after. The only thing I can figure is that she doesn’t like to do things that are hard for her. She is naturally very athletic and strong and very comfortable in the water. But her teacher is teaching her new things that she has to work at and is not great at right away so she doesn’t want to go. I don’t like to force her to go but the class is only for 2 weeks and it’s very important she gains these skills to be safe in the water, and she is fine once she is there. Any advice would be helpful, thanks!

  48. Thanks for for sharing your experience and understanding.

    I’m a divorced father and have a 9 year old daughter. She often wants me to carry her, even from bed to the kitchen for breakfast. She sometimes says she ‘just wants me to’, other times she says she’s ‘too tired’ or ‘I can’t’. She does this when it’s just the two of us (and sometimes if my family are around), but not if she’s with her friends or anyone else.

    As she is now 9 years old, how do I best encourage her to walk on her own? Or, having read your blog, do I simply not question her and just keep doing it until one day she stops asking? I’m naturally concerned it’s symptomatic of feeling pressured somehow having read your blog.

    Please help!:)



  49. Janet, my 4 year old daughter used to write her name and the names from all her friends. She did beautiful drawings up to 3 months ago. Now, she refuses to write and draw. She says she doesn’t know how to do it. What could have happened? How can I help her? She learned writing the names from seeing her 5 year old sister learn the letters. All she does now is color something that I draw.

  50. Thanks for d post. My 31 month old recently started pre KG in Nigeria. He can barely write his ABCs and 123s and his teacher is really upset about it. She believes he’s too playful and doesn’t concentrate in class. She thinks he should b beaten or chastised in order to get him to b serious bt I think this would amount to putting pressure on my son n my self. She in fact compares him wit other pupils in his class. I hav also been engaging him in home lesson in order to avoid making him lag behind in class but i’m really confused on what to do as I don’t want my boy to learn under pressure n at the same time I want him to b able to achieve what his peers are achieving at dis stage. Please i need your advice. Thanks

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