Mama Says: “I Can’t Do It!”


Dear Mama:  I am at the end of my rope. My competent lovely 3 year old daughter has been saying I can’t do it, from putting on her shoes to drawing a circle to finding her dolls, and she acts helpless and cries and throws a fit when I tell her she can. If I insist and make her try it feels like a power struggle where we both are frustrated. I usually end up doing it for her because it seems easier, but I am resentful because I KNOW she can do it. I want her to grow up and feel like she is capable of doing anything, and she is generally a happy confident girl. Do you have any words of advice on how to break this behavior?

My granddaughter was going through a very similar phase and it was driving me crazy, and I mean crazy. I was the oldest daughter of an alcoholic and I had to do everything at a very young age, not only for myself, but I also had to help my brothers and sisters get ready for school, take baths, and find the lost. It slowly dawned on me that my beloved granddaughter’s words I can’t do it, were a hot button from my past. Passivity was cousin to a hopelessness I could not afford, and when Poppie protested her abilities I grew unaccountably alarmed and then resentful when she wouldn’t try. I had to figure this one out.

The answer came unexpectedly when we were trying to get out the door one morning. Poppie was struggling with her boots, when she kicked her little feet and yelled I can’t do it!  I sat down beside her.
“Poppie, I can’t hear the word can’t anymore,” I said. “It is a weird word that does not go into my ears. You can say “I am having trouble with….” And I will help you.”

“I am having trouble with getting my boots on,” she wailed.

“No problem, I can help,” I said.
And I helped her on with her boots and we went out the door. The phrase ‘I am having trouble with…’ switched everything for me. Suddenly I wanted to help, I will help anyone who is having trouble with something, and the language opened a door where can’t was re-framed to a specific problem that could be solved. We all tell ourselves stories about who we are and about the world with a running interior narrative that never stops.

I run fast, I am fat, that person is mean, I am strong…

When Poppie said I can’t she was telling herself it was impossible and it ran like a current in her thoughts. A strong self-esteem also comes from telling ourselves good inner stories about who we are and what we are capable of, and saying I am having trouble with  versus I can’t is a reach out to adjust circumstances and help solve it.  It is naming a problem and not buckling under it.

I-can-do-it-Picture-QuoteIt didn’t take long before Poppie began using I am having trouble with instead of I can’t. Interestingly, she has had fewer episodes of giving up (maybe it is simply too many words to say!). This may not work for all children, and here is a thoughtful article on other ways of dealing with the I Can’t syndrome through different stages of childhood. Understand that helping a child will not always hijack their initiative. And look at you Mama! You wrote and said you were having trouble with your daughter and an answer arrived! Maybe not the answer you were looking for, but support comes in many forms and our ability to ask is a stepping stone to a solution.

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