This article first appeared on The Good Men Project and has been republished with permission.
My son, Blake, once had a doozy of a teacher — we’ll call him Mr. P.
Blake was always a good student, but he began falling behind when he took Mr. P’s class. On Sunday nights, I’d watch him pour over his homework, growing more frustrated by the minute. As a dad, nothing feels worse than seeing your child struggle, and I worried about how the class would affect Blake’s confidence.
Then my wife, MJ, and I took a look at the assignments. The instructions were opaque and disorganized, and we realized Blake couldn’t finish his homework because he didn’t understand what the teacher was asking. Mr. P was notoriously tough, so we talked to Blake about different ways to approach the class. Instead of accepting that he “couldn’t” do the work, we encouraged him to move his seat up front so he could engage more easily with Mr. P.
Once Blake understood the teacher’s patterns, he was able to parse difficult assignments and even build a rapport with him. In time, Blake offered feedback to Mr. P, and the teacher invited Blake to help write assignment instructions so the other students would understand him better as well.
Blake’s success in Mr. P’s class began the moment he turned his “I can’t do this” attitude into a proactive approach. MJ and I knew that as long as he allowed himself to use the word “can’t,” he would remain stuck. That’s why we nudged him away from that negative phrasing. As parents, we felt it was our duty to prevent Blake and his sister, Annie, from giving up on challenges. We banned the words “can’t” and “impossible” from their vocabularies, having already eliminated them from our own speech, and I recommend doing the same with your family.
Why Words Matter
Language is powerful, and what we say affects how we view the world. One negative or hostile word can influence how stress-regulating genes express themselves in our bodies, making it difficult to think logically or focus. A little venting here or there may seem harmless, but expressing negative thoughts increases stress levels and throws off your sleep schedule and eating habits. Because negative language self-perpetuates, it’s difficult to break the cycle once it has begun.
When kids say, “I can’t do this math problem” or “This science experiment is impossible,” they’ve already given up on finding a solution. Words like “can’t” and “impossible” give them permission to abandon the search for answers. I’ve trained my employees to avoid these words as well, at least around me. There’s nothing that frustrates me more than walking into a meeting and hearing smart people tell me they can’t do something. I know what they’re capable of, and using defeatist language inhibits them from reaching their full potential and terminates exploration of what is possible.
If you refuse to accept “I can’t” and “It’s impossible” as answers when your children encounter problems, you’ll help them strengthen their critical thinking muscles. As they go through life, they’ll become increasingly confident in their abilities to understand obstacles and find creative solutions.
Breaking Bad Linguistic Habits (and Creating Better Ones)
Of course, you wouldn’t be doing your job as a father if you simply said, “Can’t isn’t an answer” and walked away while your kid stews over a problem. The next time your child tells you she can’t do something, suggest that you take a different approach together. Rather than focusing on the ostensible problem — a difficult homework assignment, conflicts with peers, not having enough money to go to the movies with friends—start by asking why. Why is she struggling? Why is she frustrated? What’s at stake for her and for other people involved? What is she, or her teacher, trying to achieve?
When MJ and I suggested that Blake re-evaluate his homework problems, we encouraged him to think about Mr. P’s “why.” Why was he assigning such difficult work? What did he expect from his students? Understanding Mr. P’s thinking and feelings helped Blake reframe the assignments and understand what was needed to earn good grades. By drilling down into the why behind an issue, you gain a greater understanding of the situation and see new ways to remedy it.
The next time your son or daughter comes to you with a seemingly impossible problem, try using the following steps to help him or her, solve it:
1. Help him calm down.
No one can think when they’re outraged or anxious, so suggest that you do some deep breathing together or go for a walk. A change of scenery will take his mind off his frustrations and break the thought patterns he’s cultivated. Or give him a hug and a toss in the air, depending upon his age. When it comes time to revisit the problem, he’ll feel less emotionally triggered. Then you can find out what lies at the core of his distress and talk through different ways of looking at the situation.
2. Evaluate the problem.
Ask your child to explain the issue from his or her perspective. Repeat the problem out loud so she knows that you’re listening and that you understand her concerns. Then probe at the deeper issue. What are the fears that are making it difficult for her to see the issue clearly? Is she afraid of failing a class or being left back a grade? Does she worry about not having friends and suffering socially? If you can get to the heart of her emotions and understand why she feels as she does, you can help her separate those feelings from the problem at hand, and then you’ll be able to help her think more logically about potential solutions.
This strategy works with adults, too. Once, when I presented to a local board of directors, I received pushback on an idea that the members were convinced “couldn’t be done” because it was too risky. Naturally, I refused to accept “can’t” as a reason for being turned down. Instead, I asked them to break down their fears around the risks so I could speak to each one. Even if they had still rejected the proposal (which they didn’t), I would have been satisfied that they saw the whole picture instead of making fear-based decisions.
3. Create a strategy.
Once your child identifies possible solutions, help him devise a game plan for putting the best solution into action. In the case of school assignments, role-play the experience of talking with the teacher about it. Receiving positive feedback from you during the rehearsal will take the edge off his nerves when he approaches his teacher in school. When he sees that the teacher is eager to discuss the situation, he’ll learn that there are always ways to tackle tough problems and people who are willing to help.
Kids don’t need to fall back on “can’t” and “impossible” once they see creative problem-solving in action. By eliminating these and other negative words from your household, you’ll train your children to err on the side of optimism and positivity, even in the face of their toughest challenges. And that’s one of the greatest gifts a dad can impart to his kids.
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