My oldest is currently two and a half. She is working towards discovering her independence, but she is also struggling with not feeling confident enough or with getting frustrated. I know that this is just the first stage in her life where she will feel like she cannot conquer a task she is trying. However, I want to start now with encouraging her to keep going, to be strong, to persevere, and to believe in herself!
Why encouraging a child through failure and frustration is important
Part of encouraging independence is actually allowing your child to think that they can’t.
They see tasks as being insurmountable and too big to be true. Then in the process of working towards the goal of conquering a specific task, it elevates their confidence and boosts their self esteem! So when my own child says “I can’t”, I see the opportunity in her whining. I see what she can do and the opportunity to encourage her. It’s a time to show her that she is capable and that failing is not fatal, rather a step closer to mastery of a task.
I am always reminded of the Edison quote that talks about how even though he invented the light bulb, he proudly exclaims he found 1,000 ways not to invent one.
Isn’t that such great encouragement?!
So many times both as people and as parents, we focus on achieving the task at hand and forget to celebrate the failures, trials, and determination that got us there.
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How to respond when a child says I can’t
Of course we can easily spout off “Yes you can!” but in the eyes of a toddler or young child, they genuinely feel like they can’t. They are dealing with really big emotions and they’re working on mastering even simple tasks that they see you complete every day.
They are growing, developing, and changing every day. So many times when a child thinks they can’t, they’re experiencing a lot at once and giving up is the easiest option.
So of course they are going to say they can’t… and of course they want to give up… and of course they want you to do it. But doing everything for our children is not helping them in the long run. We can help them without doing it for them. We can encourage them and lift them up through our words and how we help.
Instead of just letting my daughter know that she can do it, I have found ways to use my own words to specifically motivate and inspire her to use her God-given abilities. Because I have learned that as a parent that it is my job to build up my children rather than do everything for them, but that helping is also not a bad thing. Using intentional words can help both encourage our children. It enables them. It equips them. And it teaches them.
What to say when to encourage a child that they can do something
My reactions when my daughter says she can’t
1. Assess the situation. Maybe if she is trying to to reach something and has even gone as far as getting a stool, she might still not be able to reach it. We all have limits. And telling her she still can is a lie. I don’t want her to feel like she has failed, instead I want to let her see that she did a great job problem solving, but that she has gone as far as she can with her human capabilities.
So is there a clear limit that has been reached? If so, alternative phrasing is still not going to help and the best encouragement we can give is to help them finish the job. So in this example, I might lift her up to grab what she wants to show her that she is capable, tried very hard, and that I am always there to support her.
2. Wait. Sometimes all I have to do it wait. She might whimper once that she can’t do something when it’s something I know she can. And if I wait a minute then in that time, she may have looked at the problem in a different way. In this case, not helping encouraged her to problem solve.
3. Assess her development and life pressures. I know that when I am really stressed, I am more likely to give up. This is the same with kids. Are the growing? Have they had a huge development recently or maybe even a big life change… (for us this is moving across the country)? In these instances, she is feeling like everything is out of her control. Therefore, being extra mindful of her big emotions can help me encourage her in the manner in which she needs it.
4. Acknowledge and Offer an Alternative. If what she is trying to do is not necessary, then I seek to find a way to give her options. So if she says she can’t buckle her car seat because maybe the last time she accidentally pinched herself, I might acknowledge her fears and offer that I do it this time, but maybe she can help unbuckle it since it can’t pinch her then. Or maybe She “can’t eat the food” because it was hot last time. So I might offer another source of food that is straight from the fridge. Many times a child says they can’t in these instances it is because they a previous negative experience.
5. Encourage. There are many types of encouragement. And all are important in building their confidence. But yes, sometimes we can over-encourage to the point of doing things for them. That’s where waiting comes into play. Sometimes we encourage through our words and in other times we encourage by helping them complete a task they have already started.
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Kara is an author, wife, and mother of 3 children living in Boston, MA. She has her degree in Secondary Education & Adolescent Childhood Development and is passionate about connecting with and even helping other parents on their journey to raise awesome kids!