Thoughtful Parenting: Can’t or won’t? |

Thoughtful Parenting: Can’t or won’t?

Chris Young/For Steamboat Today

Dad asks 2 1/2-year-old Annie to clean her room. Later, Dad asks Annie if she has cleaned her room. Predictably, Annie says, “Yes.” Dad and Annie go to Annie’s room to see if it’s cleaned. The room is still a mess, with toys and clothes across the floor. Dad asks Annie why she said she cleaned her room when it’s still a mess. Annie has no answer other than tears.

What happened with regard to these two events that were developmentally appropriate? First, Annie was asked to do something her brain was incapable of organizing and directing her body to do. Second, Annie told Dad she’d cleaned her room because that’s the answer she thought would keep her out of trouble.

A third problem has risen. Annie, as children older than her, cannot see the room from Dad’s point of view. It may not look messy to her at all. Furthermore, according to Lawrence Kohlberg, Annie also thinks she should get her own way. Cleaning her room, whatever that means to Annie, is much less important than playing.

A better way for Dad (or Mom, not to pick on Dad) would be for Dad and Annie to go to her room, where Dad asks Annie what she sees; then, Dad knows Annie’s view of her room. Dad could then suggest they work together to put toys and clothes where they belong, recognizing Annie is incapable — can’t, not won’t — of cleaning her room. As a result, Dad is teaching Annie how to organize, which is beyond her brain’s ability, and not setting her up to lie to him.

At an older age, between four and six, children’s brains have developed to the point they are capable of doing more things, such as putting away toys and following instructions, but their moral thinking is still based on staying out of trouble.

Dave’s class is told by their teacher they must find something in the house that begins with the letter “B” and tell the class about what they found the next day at school. Dave, age five, goes home from school. His mom asks him if there’s anything he needs to do for school for the next day. Dave says, “No,” having completely forgotten what the teacher asked him to do.

His focus during class was on playing with neighbor children after school. Mom finds out, through the miracle of the online parent portal, that Dave has been given an assignment. Did Dave lie to Mom? One answer is “yes,” because he wanted to stay out of trouble. A second answer is “no,” because Dave had forgotten what he was told to do.

In this example, Mom has the advantage of finding out what Dave’s assignment is, even though Dave forgot it. Mom can tell Dave she checked on the parent page and found out he needed to find something that began with the letter “B.” Mom and the teacher need to figure out how to help Dave remember his assignments so Dave isn’t set up to lie to Mom.

At the next developmental stage, between ages six and eight, the reason to be good, in the child’s mind, is because it’s in his or her best interest; essentially “What’s in it for me?”

Children of these ages also understand the idea of being kind to others and living up to the expectations of those who care about them. Holly, age seven, was told by her teacher the class would be going cross country skiing the following day and to dress in warm clothes. Holly arrives at school on the ski day all ready to go. When she has to put on her boots and skis, she’s suddenly worried that she won’t be able to ski without falling.

In spite of encouragement from her teacher and other adults, she sits by the side of the trail — unhappy, afraid her classmates will think she’s a sissy — and wondering what her parents will do when they find out she didn’t ski. Holly probably could have skied but was afraid to try. Holly has a fear of failing to meet her parents’ expectations. Her parents will be faced with the “can’t or won’t” dilemma. What does Holly need to get through this unfortunate event? Love, acceptance and understanding from her parents and teacher and help dealing with her feelings of inadequacy.

Another example of the “can’t or won’t” dilemma is when a child goofs off for consecutive days on a school project or household task he’s been asked to complete. He may say he’s done it when he hasn’t in a vain attempt to please his parents or teacher. The misrepresentation is obvious, but its cause isn’t. This youngster may, similar to Annie, be incapable of doing the school assignment or the household chore. The child may also be avoiding an unpleasant task. Either way, to help the child, adults must keep in mind there’s always a possibility the child cannot do what’s asked of him or her.

If the child lies to cover his failure, the lie is intended to possibly please his parents or teacher, to avoid punishment or to hide the fact that the child feels inadequate. Remember the benefit of the doubt.

For more information on this complicated topic, visit the following links.

Chris Young, PhD, is a Licensed Psychologist in private practice specializing in children and families. For more information, check out her website at and she can be reached at 970-879-3032.

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