Ask an Expert; When your kid says “I can’t!”
By Olynda Smith
Question: How can I help my daughter stop saying, "I can't" when something is hard. I've tried talking to her about the importance of not giving up, and that even when she says "I can't" do xyz, then she gets it. But she still limits herself when an activity or fine motor skill is tough.
Answer from Olynda:
I am so glad you asked this question! It can be so hard to hear our little ones express frustration or even worse witness them feeling deflated. We want our children to have confidence, perseverance, resilience and grit! Sometimes, supporting them in developing those things can be counter intuitive. I hope I can offer you some ways of working with your daughter’s very common tendency to say “I can’t!”.
When a young child says “I can’t”, they can mean many different things. They may mean “This is really hard!” or “I need your help.” They may mean “I am done trying right now!” There is a world of difference between “I can’t” and “this is hard.” Being able to express some of what they are feeling in a positive and clear way will help them move towards a healthy relationship with failing and trying again. We can help them reframe what they are saying, and believing, in a gentle way.
When your child says “I can’t” I suggest reframing that back to her by saying something like “This is really hard right now, isn’t it?” or “That is just not working out the way you want it to!” Try to refrain from telling her not to say “I can’t”, if you consistently reframe she will likely, over time, absorb this new healthier language and perspective.
Hard things are hard. We all can feel frustrated when things don’t work out the way we want them too. The surest way to support a child who is feeling deflated and frustrated is by empathizing. This might simply be giving her your full attention. If a child just wants you to know they are having a hard time, then your attention might be all they need! You might need to let them know that you see their struggle. You might say something like “I can see how frustrated you are, this is hard for you!” If your child is feeling deflated, you might say “It can be so hard to try again when it isn’t working the way you want it to!” Let them know you feel frustrated and deflated sometimes too!
You can ask your child how they would like to be supported. Do they need a hug? A moment away from the item that is causing frustration to have a dance party and come back fresh? Do they need your assistance to help them be successful? Do they need a snack?
Since this appears to be a current growth edge for your daughter - you might try to model for her what resilience looks like! Pick something that only mildly frustrates you, and model for your child a healthy response. Narrate for them, so they understand. This is how that could look: Let’s say you are doing origami together. Intentionally mess up your folding. Look at it and say “This isn’t right! I’ve tried it seven times and it’s still not right! I am so frustrated!!” Maybe model taking ten breaths or doing a silly dance letting her know you are intentionally taking a break to come back fresh to your work. Then come back to it. You might say “This is so hard, but I’m trying again. Now I know I have to fold it like this... “ Show her how pleased you are when you do finally get it right.
You might also look for some great books to read that show how failure is part of every success.
Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty is a wonderful example! Another is I can do hard things, Mindful Affirmations for Kids by Gabi Garcia. Tell her stories from your own lifetime or that of a family member where they had to fail and try again. For older children, hearing examples from history is very helpful! Ofcourse, offer these stories on their own, not as a “teaching lesson” while she is feeling frustrated!
I hope that some of these suggestions will help as you support your child in knowing that failure is part of success, and that she can do hard things.
Olynda Smith is a Certified Montessori Early Childhood teacher, Simplicity Parenting Family Life Coach, Certified Yoga Teacher (RYT E-500) and Mother of two. Olynda has 15 years of experience working with young children and parents. She has a deep love of the Montessori method and an understanding of the philosophy and method honed by her many years spent as a Montessori teacher.
Olynda serves as the Early Childhood Education Coordinator for Peaceful Schools NC and she is the Education Director at Tiny Earth Toys. She brings to all of her work a rich background in different parenting styles, educational practices and most of all a deep respect for all parents and children. Several of Olynda’s articles about work with children and yoga have appeared in Montessori Life Magazine. In all of her work, Olynda considers herself to be a “connection advocate” - helping people connect more deeply to themselves, each other and the planet.
Olynda lives in Durham, North Carolina with her husband, two young children and their goldfish Steev. She loves hiking, gardening, making herbal home remedies and curling up with a good book.