The I Can’t/Won’t Child

One of E’s most frustrating personality traits that has come out more and more in the last year or so is an attitude of “I CAN’T” or he WON’T even try.

It comes out the most during new physical activities like skating and swimming lessons.

I get that not everyone wants to try everything, and he’s never been the type to jump right into new situations and activities. I don’t want to force him to do anything,  but what thing I find particularly frustrating are

1) he gets so excited about new activities beforehand and then breaks down in tears at the first sign of not being able to do it perfectly right off the bat,

2) claiming he can’t do something even though he doesn’t try (or, even more frustrating, when he CAN do it), and

3) breaking down into tears because he tries to do something new, does it, and then I  (gasp!) cheer him on.

It pushes me to the breaking point every times this happens. It is beyond frustrating to me. Why can’t he just TRY? Who cares if he can’t do it perfectly right away? Why does everything have to end in tears? Why can’t he just have fun trying (sometimes he doesn’t and sometimes he loves it and can’t wait to go to the next lesson, but it’s a crapshoot what his attitude will be like the next time)?

Both DH and I are totally flummoxed by this and don’t know what to do. We don’t want him to give up on things so easily, but we don’t want to force him into things either.

What worries me is that he’ll become so afraid to try new things that a) we’re going to start thinking twice about signing him up for classes/lessons or buying him new things (like a bike) because we don’t want him to give up and essentially waste the time and money, and b) I don’t want this attitude to keep him away from so many cool things in life.

Any thoughts or advice from parents who have been there, done that, with this kind of attitude?


Comments on: "The I Can’t/Won’t Child" (9)

  1. Yeah, my first is very much like this. It's still a work in progress. If you look up “perfectionism” on our blog you'll find some posts on things that have helped. A lot of it is about instilling a growth mindset and getting him to be willing to try new things. It takes a ton of perseverance on the part of the parents!

    There is a great word world where sheep, I think, learns to ride a bike. You probably have the little engine that could… There's some more stuff that's slipping my mind right now, but for us it is constant reminders about trying and failing being ok. (Video games, btw, were an enormous breakthrough! But at an age older than yours is right now.)


  2. (I hate blogger so much! Grrrrrr. Comment eaten, again.)

    Anyway, long story short — nicoleandmaggie speak the truth. Keep at it, calmly and relentlessly. You will start to notice that there is a difference between things he really doesn't want to do and those he does but where he is stuck in a loop of frustration and anger.

    My older two are like that, especially Middle Boy (who, my guess is, may be highly gifted). I remember the tears and drama around the two of them learning how to whistle around the age 5 or 6. It was nights of trying and failing and crying and “I will never do it!” What I have found helped is just staying calm, and stopping the activity if he's frustrated without making a big fuss (which I know is hard when you are actually paying for the activity) and forewarn it that you are coming back again and he will have to do it again next time.


  3. But went through a lot of this. He still does the “I can't DO it!” I think it's fairly common- fear of failure, a little perfectionism, and maybe he's crying at praise because he's afraid he can't do it again, plus Bug is pretty sensitive/emotional for an almost-6-year-old boy.

    What we do – and I don't know if it'll help you, but worth a try? – is even when he's freaking out we say “I have confidence that you can do this. I'd like you to try. I will help you by giving you directions.” And the 10-20% of the time that he really can't, or is too freaked out, we say “Thank you for trying so hard. We'll keep working on it.”

    I've actually been saying this to Bug for a few years now because I remember reading some article in the mists of time asserting that persistence and resilience are the strongest predictors of later success. (Which means that you're doing a GREAT thing helping E learn these skills! They don't come easily to sensitive children.)

    You might also try the narrative-therapy approach- which still helps Bug even though you'd think he'd be too old. You know, the thing where you give them a story? “Once there was a little boy who really wanted to learn to ice skate but it looked SO hard. And everyone he saw looked like they were doing a perfect job. And he asked his Mama and she told him that when she was a little girl, she fell down EVERY time she tried to skate. But she kept trying…” etc.


  4. Wait, all kids don't do this? Both of mine do. I'll have to read the advice you guys wrote more carefully to see how I can help…


  5. Does he ever see you guys try something new and kinda suck at it at first? If not, might it help for him to see you do that, and then for you to tell him how happy you are that you made [specific improvement over last time you tried it], and not mention the fact that you also fell over a lot / failed in other activity-specific ways?

    (This is Cath by the way – I can't seem to get your comment form to recognise me!)


  6. Many first born children struggle with perfectionism. It might seem counter-intuitive but maybe rather than cheering him on in an activity, save your praise for a private moment on the way home in which you emphasize how proud you are that he participated in the event and not on whether or not he did well at it. “You swam so well” may upset him if he feels he did not meet his own expectations but a “I'm proud of you for going to swim class today and staying in the pool the whole time” delivers the message you want which is that it's not about how good he is at swimming but that he had the courage to get in the pool and the persistence to stay there. If you focus on his performance you are affirming his own belief that that is the most important thing. He might also benefit from more role-playing before starting a new activity. So, you want a new bike. It looks like fun to ride a bike. Sometimes when kids first learn to ride a bike it's harder than they think it will be. They even fall off and hurt themselves More than once. How would you feel if that happened to you? This opens up a discussion of fears and frustrations before they happen and may help to prepare him for what he will experience in a new endeavor.He's maybe still too young, but the question, “what's the worst thing that could happen if you fail?” is a helpful one too in putting failure into perspective. Anything you can do to help him manage his perfectionism will be a life long gift to him — ask anyone who has struggled with it their whole life and they will say they wish they had had help earlier in their life to overcome it.


  7. Thanks everyone for your comments and advice! It sounds this is more common that it seems, because right not it seems like he's the only kid like this around! I never see any other kid freaking out about stuff at his classes, in school, in public, anywhere. But, maybe it's because I don't really care about the actions of other kids so I'm not watching them 🙂

    We have/do tried/try the “just try it” thing and it does not budge him. He'll just dig in his heels, and say “I can't!” “No!”, “I don't want to!”.

    Once he gets to that point, there's just no talking to him. We've tried so many different angles, but he's so stubborn!

    We'll keep trying of course, but I just hope he grows out of it!

    Man, this parenting thing gets hard as they get older, eh?


  8. Here are some thoughts for what it could be about.

    1) The most likely thing is that it's just a stage he's going through and all you need to do is stay low-key and positive until it's over. You can possibly circumvent it by getting a friend to do the activity with him – kids don't like looking like babies in front of their friends *but* being allowed to be emotionally vulnerable is a thing we condition boys out of and then gripe about when they become our life partners.

    2) It could be a need for control if he doesn't feel he has much control in his life. If so, perhaps give him more control over low level things, the two choices strategy i.e. not “what do you want to wear” but “do you want to wear your blue shirt of your red shirt?”.

    3) It could be he has a trait for perfectionism and/or giftedness and this is something someone said in a giftedness forum about gifted kids not wanting to do stuff if they can't do it perfectly. The link at the end is really interesting for “typical” kids as well.
    Ideas please for dealing with perfectionism!!
    I'm a child psychologist, specialising in working with gifted children and in answer to your 'is this common' question, I can answer with a definite YES! There are lots of reasons why this is…

    Gifted children often judge their own performance in absolutes (this is great / this is terrible) rather than in more relative terms ('it's better than it was yesterday / it's better than Johnny's) and also can be more focused on the outcome (this didn't come out the way I pictured it in my head* instead of the process (that was fun to do regardless of the end product). Also, as gifted children often are quite detail focused they can see 'errors' that others don't see or don't care about AND memory storage in gifted children can be quite different from their same age peers which also contributes to the perfectionism difficulties (a bit complex to go into detail here about)

    Now to the million dollar question – what can you do?!! Thankfully, there is a lot…

    Firstly, be very careful how you praise your boy and make sure that others do the same. There is a tendency for adults to focus a lot on the outcomes a gifted child produces rather than the process (often other kids get praised with 'I like how hard you are trying' vs the gifted 'everyone look at what Johnny made). This means that children then learn that the end product IS really important. There is a great article here that talks about this in more detail here

    4. The final thing – he could have picked up on your responses to the challenges in your life with your stroke. If you've had quite an emotional time as you've met each new challenge than he might think that getting emotional with each of his challenges is the right response. At his age he's not able to distinguish the difference in scale between those events.

    If you annoyed because you can't do something that came easily before your stroke you may have to downplay it in front of him and accentuate the “I can't do it now but if I keep trying than I know I'll improve”.

    It may be one of those things or a mix of those things. Feel free to write-off anything that doesn't fit – I'm half a world away while you are living it.


  9. MPledger – thank you for your awesome and thoughtful response! There are a few things you mentioned that I haven't considered (potential giftedness/perfectionist, and how he saw me react to my challenges.

    Having a friend with him does seem to work a bit, but he still digs in his heels quite a lot.

    You gave me lots to think about! Thank you!


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