Parenting and Can’t vs. Won’t

Greetings families of Pine Hill and South Bay students!

 Thank you for entrusting your children to us! I wanted to reach out to you and share some resources available to you through the South Bay School District.  I have been working at South Bay for about 10 years wearing many hats.  Currently I am the District Behavior Interventions and Supports Specialist.  In this role I work with teachers, students and parents. 

One part of my job is facilitating parent support groups at 8:30 am at both South Bay (on Wednesdays) and  Pine Hill (on Fridays). As a parent of 8 kids, I have had my share of parenting trials! Our parent support groups are free, open to any adult with a child attending school in our district and happen twice a week.  

In a recent parent support group the subject of ‘can’t’ vs. ‘won’t’ came up in discussion. We, as parents,  have to make decisions all the time about how to respond, or react, to our child’s behavior.  When we think they can’t do something (like tie their shoes) , we help, show them how to do it, do it for them and teach them the skill.  We do this so they can learn, to help them be independent and because it's our job.  

When we think our kids “won’t” do something (like tie their shoes) we may find ourselves getting impatient, we might threaten, we might give a consequence (which teaches them to want to) or give a punishment (we share our anger and upset with them) to ‘teach them a lesson’. 

Understanding the difference between whether your child can’t do something or won’t do something determines what we do next. When we think our kid can’t do something, we often stay in good relationships with them because helping is what we do when they need help!  When we think our kid won’t do something we often enter a power struggle with them. We then think it is our job to ‘make the kid want to’ do what we are asking. This usually does not work out well.  

In support group this week, we talked about how people can know how to do something, but when they get stressed out, they suddenly ‘can’t’ do the skill. How many of us can relate to this? I know how to do the dishes but some days when I look at the pile of dishes in the sink I am just too overwhelmed to even begin the task! I have been driving somewhere, gotten upset and I have ‘forgotten’ where I was going! Our stressed brains struggle to remember what we can and can’t do. Sometimes our stressed brains don’t allow us to cooperate.  Sometimes our stressed brains don’t allow us to focus and think. When our brains are stressed, we are in ‘fight, flight or freeze.’  

What helps our brains, and our kids' brains, to be less stressed and to shift out of “fight, flight or freeze” is empathy.  Empathy is a combination of compassion and kindness. Empathy involves soft eye contact, a soft voice and can include a gentle touch. Giving our kids empathy when they are struggling helps their brains move out of ‘fight, flight or freeze’ and back into their ‘thinking brain.’ It also helps US, the adults, stay in our thinking brain! 

Empathy sounds like, 

  • “That’s rough”

  • “I am sorry.”

  • “Bless your heart.”

  • “That’s sad.”

  • “Oh, that’s never good.”

  • “Oh, honey.”

  • “That stinks.” 

  • “How sad.”

A great rule to live by is ‘kids do well if they can.’ This means that when kids are stressed it can look like a ‘won’t’ … but it is really a “can’t” -things that they were able to do when they were calm, felt safe, or when they are rested they CAN’T do when they are stressed. If our rule to live by is “Kids do well if they can” then I am going to do all of the things with my child that I would if they ‘couldn’t’ do something. I will help them, show them, do it for them, wait until another time, modify a task (think velcro shoes instead of laces if a kid can’t tie their shoes).

So, practice those empathetic responses! Have an empathetic response ready when your child does something upsetting or when they are ‘stuck’ and can’t perform a task or job that they can normally do.  When we can replace anger with empathy we don’t have to say a lot, usually one or two words, while giving soft eyes, soft voice and soft touch.  If you are tempted to add some sarcasm to the empathetic statement, you are no longer being empathetic. Sarcasm sends a message that you don’t care about the person. Practice your empathic statement until it feels genuine and comfortable.  

Most importantly, we need to extend empathy to ourselves.  When we are feeling stuck, stop, take a breath, and say a few kind words to yourself. This letter is an invitation to join us for Parent Support Group! We meet Wednesdays at South Bay at 8:30 am and on Fridays at Pine Hill at 8:30 am.  Everyone is welcome, I would love to meet you in person!  If you have any questions, please contact the Family Resource Center at 445-5933.

Warm Regards,  Ronda Evans