Distinguishing Between “Can’t” and “Won’t”

February 20th, 2015 by Dionna | Leave a comment
Posted in Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting

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Imagine: you are late for a meeting. You’ve asked your older child to put the dog outside, and you’ve asked the younger child to put her coat on. These are tasks both children have carried out before, they are capable.

So when, after three requests, you come into the room where both coatless children are now petting the dog, how do you react?

Before you even respond with a discipline tactic, think first about how you feel inside. Notice whether this scene (or some variation adapted to your family) evokes tension, stress, anger, frustration. It does for me in all sorts of ways.

Back to the scenario. Imagine you go in the room with the feelings you’ve just described on top of the stress you feel about being late for your meeting. In my house, I’d probably yell and/or blame – those are the behaviors I’ve brought along in my parenting toolkit that says “Open in Times of Stress.”

But if I take one minute to breathe and imagine different possibilities before I walk in with my righteous indignation blaring, the outcome can be so much better.

What if, instead of thinking that the children won’t get ready, I assumed that they can’t get ready?

What if the kennel door won’t latch? What if the coat’s zipper is stuck shut? What if the dog is hurt and both children are worried? What if, what if, what if?

The authors of No Drama Discipline agree: “Parental frustration radically and drastically decreases when we distinguish between a can’t and a won’t.”

“Sometimes we assume that our kids won’t behave the way we want them to, when in reality, they simply can’t, at least not in this particular moment. The truth is that a huge percentage of misbehavior is more about can’t than won’t. The next time your child is having a hard time managing herself, ask yourself, “Does the way she’s acting make sense, considering her age and the circumstances? Much more often than not, the answer will be yes.”1

Remembering that kids are kids – they’re not miniature adults who share our priorities – can not only help us discipline more effectively, it can also free us from imposing expectations that are not realistic or age-appropriate.

This week, whenever you feel the tension rise and you get ready to discipline, take a moment to re-frame how you are viewing your child’s behavior. Shift from “he won’t!” into “he can’t.” And remember that even if the task is something he is physically capable of doing, often there is something else going on that makes him feel emotionally unable – he can’t, at least in this moment.

Here are some more resources that might help you this week:

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Photo adapted with permission from Steve Corey via Flickr Creative Commons

  1. No Drama Discipline at 17.

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