When kids say, "I can't"

A child who has mastered a skill may still want Mom's help.


Nicole Barrette says her five-year-old, Joseph, is independent in many ways, but will sometimes catch her off guard by his desires to have her help him. “It can be as simple as putting toothpaste on his toothbrush,” she says.

“Or I’ll ask him to get his little brother a box of cereal, and he’ll say, ‘I can’t.’ These are things I know he can do.”

Brenda Henley, a parent educator in Calgary, says this is not unusual behaviour. “This age is like a bridge, with babies on one side and grown-up kids on the other. So sometimes they want to do big-kid things like riding bikes, and sometimes they just want to cuddle on mom’s lap. It’s the same with doing things independently and having parents do things for them.”

Henley adds that changes in a child’s life — a new baby, for instance — can also cause regression. “The child sees all the attention the new baby gets, and figures he can get some of that if he behaves like a baby.” A change in daycare or or stress in the family can make a child want some extra attention — and he may express that by asking parents to do things for him.

How can parents respond?

• Recognize that kids this age are still pretty young and get tired or overwhelmed easily. Barrette says she’s realized by bedtime, her son Joseph sometimes really does feel too worn out to get toothpaste neatly on his brush.

• Encourage your child to feel good about all that she can do, suggests Henley. “You could ask your child, ‘Why do you think I’m proud of you?’ She might say, ‘Because I drew a good picture’ or ‘Because I brought you a diaper for the baby.’”

• Ask your child to “give it three tries” and then you’ll help. Barrette has used this when Joseph has resisted putting his toys away, for example — she asks him to put away three things and then she helps with the rest.

• Make it easy for your child to succeed. If he’s asking you to put his shoes on because he often gets them on the wrong feet, use a marker to put dots on the inside of the shoe that he can match. If he resists dressing himself, maybe it will be easier if you fold entire outfits together — T-shirts, pants and socks — in his dresser. Use easy-to-get-into clothing, such as pants with an elastic waist.

• Try to add an element of play. “Mopping the floor isn’t fun, but if I slop some water on the floor and let them skate around on sponges, they jump right in,” says Barrette.

• Give choices rather than orders, says Henley. “Kids want to have a sense of control. So you might get better results by asking, ‘Would you like to put away the books or the toy cars?’

Be careful not to criticize

Consider whether you’ve been criticizing his efforts when he does try to accomplish things on his own. “Kids this age really want to please you,” says Henley. “If you always redo their attempts to make the bed or sweep the floor, they may decide not to do it at all.” Barrette says she’s realized that “I have to be willing to let Joseph make mistakes as he learns independence. I try really hard not to express disappointment or resentment when he does things wrong and ends up creating more work for me.” In fact, she thinks her son’s reluctance to put toothpaste on his brush might have started when she yelled at him one night for squeezing a bit too hard and getting toothpaste everywhere (and we all know how easily that can happen!).

Henley adds: “If you’re getting a lot of resistance, you may want to take a step back. Your child may need some more one-on-one time with you when you are just relaxing and doing fun things together. Lots of patience and love will help you through this stage until his natural desire to be independent takes over again.”

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