Lately I’ve noticed a phenomenon that, while it is not entirely propagated by my children, is certainly perfected by them. I could put it down to basic word definition confusion, but I think it goes somewhat deeper than that. You see, they seem to be entirely unclear about the difference between the word “can” and “want” and their associated derivatives.

Allow me to explain, via some of my recent requests to them. And yes, these are “requests,” not “nagging,” contrary to my children’s uninformed opinions.

“Please pick up your jacket from the front hall.”

“Please clean up your food dishes from the family room.”

“Stop hitting your brother.”

To which they inevitably reply:
A) I can’t, I’m in the middle of a video game.
B) I can’t, I’m still using it/them.
C) I can’t because he hit me first. And he’s making me do it by being stupid.

Learning the difference between what you can do and what you want to do is fundamental to functioning in society. That said, I have to admit there are times when I hear myself, and adult friends, mixing up the two as well.

“I’d love to get up and go to the gym at 5:00am, but I just can’t.”

“I need to lose 10 pounds, but I just can’t.”

“I wish I could get my kids to go to bed on time, but I can’t.”

The misuse of the word “can’t” in place of “want” is rampant. The function of this conjunction is to indicate that something is, in fact, totally unable to take place. When what we mean, in most of these situations, is that we don’t want to do these things. And I don’t blame ourselves. Most of them are not pleasant things to do.

But when it comes to our children, I think it’s imperative to ensure they understand the difference. No, it’s not the childish game of “Could you get me a glass of water?” to which they reply, “Well, I could…” and then they don’t. Not wanting to do something is just not the same as not being able to do something. But in this age of helicopter parenting, increasingly as parents, we’re telling our kids they can’t do more and more, and letting them only pursue the things they want to do. When we ask them to clean up the mess they made in the bathroom, is it any wonder that they say they can’t, when we don’t even allow them to go to the facilities by themselves in a crowded restaurant?

Establishing an “I think I can, I think I can” mentality that the little train took on as he chugged up that hill is something we need to keep in mind versus the “But I don’t want to” whine we hear more often than not from our kids. Which, let’s face it, normally results in us just doing it for them to get the complaining to stop. The stopping of sounds of complaints is as much for them, as it is for us, unfortunately.

This “avoid disappointment at all costs” parenting style is creating a generation of kids who feel as though they have to be entertained all the time, never once having to stop to do some chores, help out around the house, or gasp, the worst thing of all… be bored. Children not only can get bored, they should get bored. When we’re bored we discover what it is we naturally like doing with our hard-to-find free time.

I’m not one to suggest that school isn’t boring sometimes as well, but kids also need to drop the complaints on that front. “You’re lucky you don’t have to go to school. Why do we have to go to school? I don’t want to!” We’ve all heard that from our kids too. The reality is, they’re lucky they can go to school, when many children in other parts of the world are not able. I’m not suggesting we’ll ever find a way to get our kids to want to go to school… but give them the choice between that and cleaning up the bathroom, or listening to me complain about those last 10 pounds, and they might just really discover that what they really want, is a relative thing. GL

This article first appeared in The Good Life and can be found at this link:

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