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Children say I cant when really they can
What do you do when you ask a child to do something, and the child says he/she can't? Or, is your child simply being manipulative? - photo by Nicholeen Peck
Porter, its your day to unload the dishwasher, I said one night after dinner.

Okay, he said, but then he started playing Legos instead of doing dishes.

Porter, you were told to do the dishes and now youre playing Legos. You didnt follow instructions, I said.

Porter immediately interrupted, But I cant. Its too high to put them away.

At this point, 7-year-old Porter needed to be corrected for interrupting, which is not disagreeing appropriately. He also needed to hear the rest of the correction for not following the instruction I gave him (to do the dishes). At our home, each of these corrections is followed by earning an extra chore. This helps in character development and in learning cause and effect. Of course, we also practice the situation again the right way using the communication skills we already know and use as a family thus proactively preparing to (hopefully) not have this same situation occur again.

Porter said, I cant. But he has put dishes away in high cupboards many times with the help of our trusty kitchen stool. So why would he say, I cant now when I know he can?

About this same time in Porters young life he also started saying he couldnt read things I was asking him to read and couldnt clean things I was asking him he needed to clean, even though I knew he had done these things before. He seemed a little more overwhelmed than usual and a little whinier as well.

How to help Shift his thinking

There are a variety of reasons children will say, I cant when they really can: stress, anxiety, fear, distractedness and manipulation can all be reasons children say, I cant even when they have the skill theyre saying they dont have.

When Porter said he couldnt put the dishes away he was really saying he didnt want to put them away right then. He was anxious to get back to his Legos and used the, I cant excuse as a manipulation to hopefully shift the task to someone taller, like mom or dad.

Childhood manipulations like this instance happen all of the time but can easily be stopped if they dont work. Even though a parent could feel bad for a child and want them to have more playtime, the parent needs to teach the child how to be obedient by following the instruction given. Otherwise, the child will eventually develop a sense of entitlement and feel that manipulation is a useful life skill.

Manipulation is the number one relationship killer. A child who learns that manipulation is useful when theyre young will not end up with honest relationships in adulthood. One of the kindest things a parent can do is teach the child obedience by correcting the child when instructions arent followed.

At our home we teach the children specific steps to following an instruction, and the specific steps to accepting no answers, accepting corrections and disagreeing appropriately. These four basic skills help children live more deliberately and honestly.

When Porter said he couldnt read what I was asking him to read to me, he was really saying that he had stress associated with reading. His anxiety about reading taking too long, because he still needed to sound too many words out, created stress. This stress is usually accompanied by a feeling of powerlessness.

A wise parent knows the difference between manipulation and anxiety, or belief in an inability. If a person feels anxiety, he or she can honestly believe that he or she cant do something like reading because it was difficult the first time they tried it. This kind of fear associated with trying something hard is very common. But it should not be used as an excuse to not try or work on the skill some more.

In this type of situation, the parent acknowledges the anxiety the child is expressing and helps the child know doing the hard thing will be safe. The parent prepares the child for success at the hard task by making a plan with the child for how he/she will accomplish the difficult thing, including discussion of positive and negative consequences associated with doing or not doing the task. Then the parent gently instructs the child to do the hard thing. Of course, after the child has made progress toward the difficult goal, the parent praises the courageous steps the child has made in the right direction.

Advice for parents

No matter if your child is trying to get out of a chore by manipulation or by not knowing how to cope with stress and anxiety, its important the parent affirm for the child that he or she can do the hard thing. Children who are sheltered from doing difficult things will struggle with feelings of powerlessness and have a tendency to underperform and make excuses. This is a recipe for feeling unfulfilled and weak. Helping children overcome fears and anxiety and learn obedience creates a habit of being emotionally strong.

Additionally, the most important thing parents can do when correcting a child who chooses to manipulate, or when attempting to empower a fearful child, is to have a calm and understanding tone. These types of parents wont allow their childrens actions to cause them to take offense or to become short tempered and impatient. If parents are not calm, it can create disconnection with the child, contention in the home and frustration for everyone. Plus, the child will sink deeper into selfishness.

Parents who are calm and focused while working to reach the heart of the child (even during a correction), will create a feeling of safety and unity in the home and a deeper, more meaningful relationship with the child.
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