A 3 1/2 year old child has entered an "I can't" phase. He says "he can't" about things he really can do. It becomes hard to detect when to help or not help, because you're supposed to help children with things they can't do. However it's pretty much "giving into tantrum" if you help a child do something they say they can't do but they really CAN do.

How do you deal with this?

11 Answers 11


Obviously you will need to check just to confirm they actually can do it (for example they say they can't put their shoes on when you know they can - could be down to having something stuck in the shoe...it's happened before) but if they are just saying 'I can't' then they probably are just attention seeking, or wanting to do something else.

A useful workaround we always went with was to say, "Oh, that's a pity, because if you don't get that done we'll run out of time when shopping (or whatever) so won't be able to go to the park (insert other nice activity here)" and help them understand that there is a cause and effect.

At 3 1/2 they can start to see how this works - it didn't work so well when we first tried it around 2; think they were just too young to grasp the relationship between now and later.

We used this sort of discipline throughout - especially as they got older. Good behaviour meant we had time to do fun stuff, but tantrums or bad behaviour took time out of our day that then had to come out of their play. Be firm - a few rules like this help a child immensely when developing their understanding of boundaries.


Our eldest son went through this phase at about 3 years old. We discovered that he seemed to think that he should be able to do things right the first time, and when that didn't happen, that meant he couldn't do it. Added to that, he thought he'd be in trouble if he didn't get his shoes on right because we were in a hurry.

We spent some time (probably a week or so) repeating and reinforcing the idea that "Nobody gets it right the first time or even all the time", "Practice is how we learn to do things", and "We won't learn it if we don't try it." We also took some time to model this behavior by pointing out times when Mommy and Daddy didn't quite get something—like missing a basket when playing ball—and showing how we kept trying even though we didn't get it the first time.

It wasn't long before he started saying "OK I try" instead of "No Mommy I can't." Sometimes we are still in a rush, but he at least tries to get ready, and we praise him for making the effort even when we have to correct his work.

  • That was pretty much why we had the problem too. Slowing it down and reassuring him is GREAT! Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 15:01

I have found with my kids that giving them a choice helps them remember that they can. Put your shoes on and come with me to go have fun, or leave your shoes off and take a nap and no toys, no TV, nothing.

Sometimes you just need to let them fail and that is enough motivation. When my boy was 3 I saw that he didn't need training wheels on his bike. I took them off and he squawked. I took him on a gentle grass hill next to my house and had him try it, but he was so determined to fail that before he even got on the bike he fell over and said "See! I told you I can't". I laughed and told him that he couldn't go on a ride until he learned how to ride. He started his tantrum and I went back into the house. As I closed the door he yelled up to me and said "Wait!" I opened the door and he decided he could do it now. He rode for about 20 feet and shocked himself and jumped off. I was excited for him and told him I knew he could do it. Then he got on the bike and rode it for a few minutes. He was excited and I took him on a ride.


We have a similar situation at home. In our case, I can't actually means I don't want to. We are talking about things our daughter can very well do herself: putting on her shoes, dressing herself, etc.

The way we found to deal with it is to go and check, if she really needs help. If not, we encourage her to try it by herself. The important thing is to stay firm in not helping, when no help is needed. This is most difficult when we are about to leave, and it would speed things up tremendously if I just put her on on her shoes...

Anyway, my advice is to check up on what your child is doing and see if help is needed (because sometimes, it is!). And keep repeating the mantra of all parents in the world:

It is only a phase, it will pass...
It is only a phase, it will pass...
It is only a phase, it will pass...


Kid's like a challenge, so make it one. Instead of saying "Billy, put your shoes on" say "Billy, I bet you can't put your shoes on with your eye's closed!" Instead of "Sally, put your pajamas in the drawer." try "Sally, bet you can't put your pajamas in the drawer with one hand behind your back."

Also, I use "minute-to-win-it" with my five year old. "Marie, I see you left your light on in your room upstairs. Your challenge is to turn it off. Your prize is X. You have a minute to win it. Ready? GO!" Prize can be simple. Three kisses on the cheek, one "climb-up-Daddy", etc.


Try chunking the tasks into smaller ones. For example, if your son says he can't get dressed: "What do you need to put on to get dressed? How about your shirt? Can you find it? Can you put it on? What else do you need to put on? Pants? Can you put them on? What else are you missing?" etc.

Encourage your child to try to do something. "You're a big boy, I bet you can do it! If you try, I'll give you a hug!"

If it's something that you can demonstrate to your child - do it. IE if you want your kid to build a tower from blocks, get another set. Show him: can you put these 4 blocks like this? Can you add another two like this? Another one? Keep going! See, it's easy!

Don't push your child too hard to do something you think he can do, but have him try a couple times first. Show him how proud you are when he does.

  • +1 for chunking - it IS super important to keep tasks small and simple for this age! Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 15:00

Simple encouragement!

"I have faith in you"
"I know you can do this, I've seen it before"
"I know you don't think you can, and I know you can!"

That's it. If it is really something they can do (as other posters have expanded upon) don't enable them by doing something for them they already know how to do.

Once they've done it, respond with non-evaluative statements to encourage reflection:

"Wow! You didn't think you could do it, and you did!"
"You put a lot of effort into __ ."
"How were you able to __ ?"

  • +1 for both the encouragement and non-evaluative statements. Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 14:56

When my daughter went through this phase, my go to response was always, "well, then you should try so you get practice until eventually you can. I'll watch you while you try."

If she argued that she shouldn't have to try, I said, "well, the trouble with that is that as your Mom it is my job to teach you things so you can do them on your own, if I just do it for you then I'm not doing my job. Bummer. I guess we can't go anywhere until you give it a shot."

Then I'd watch her try. Often, she was able to do whatever, but it took her longer than it would've taken me which might be why she wanted me to do it. Sometimes she did get stuck somewhere along the line and I could give her useful tips and tricks or help her at the point while encouraging her efforts. "Hey that seemed like a good try, I bet your fingers (or whatever) will just keep getting better at it every time you try."

When she was successful I observed her success, "oh look at that! You got your coat on and you even got one button done! Would you like a little help with some of the other buttons now?"

This method did two things: It showed her I was there and on her team rather than putting us at odds while still insisting on her efforts AND it taught her the value of practice and patience - that it is okay not to be GREAT at it right away.

Now that she is six, she is well-past the "I can't" stage, and when she is facing a frustrating challenge that is proving difficult for her, (hitting a tennis ball in the center of the raquet for example) I often hear her tell herself, "but with practice I'll get it".

This is also what she told my parents when they asked her if she was ready for her first TKD championship the night before. She said, "not really, I'm nervous, but this is a first time so I'll just go and do my best - then next time I won't be so nervous and I'll learn and eventually with practice, I'll get it.

Using this method in combination with Kit Fox's method and making sure to slow it down and understand where your kid is coming from should work wonders.

  • +1 for helping your child learn that mistakes are okay and part of the process of learning!! Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 18:32

Our four year old is, thankfully, emerging from that phase. Here is how I dealt with it.

First I would tackle whether it's a want issue.

Is it that you can't or that you don't want to do it?

I've had quite a bit of success getting an honest answer from that question and clarifying the issue tends to calm them down. Then proceed to the encouragement. We got this tip from his pre-school teacher. Basically you offer to help once they help themselves a bit.

I'd like to see you start putting your shoes on. You do one and then I'll do the other.

We had a lot of success with that one. Often times he would put on both shoes without another word. As with all tricks kids start to see through these eventually but it was a great way to move the process along. It's to the point now where he either does it himself or politely asks for help. I'll take this over an "I can't!" tantrum any day.


There is a really good Sesame Street episode for this: Chris Teaches Elmo How to Bowl. Unfortunately, I can't find the video online, but maybe another user will be able to provide the link.

I watched the episode dozens of times with both my children (around ages 2-4), especially the Chris / Elmo bowling part. My kids learned the "try and try" song, and when they got frustrated learning something, we'd sing the "try and try" song. Of course, this is anecdotal, but I feel like "try and try" was extraordinarily important for their development.


I was always very forceful and angry about it, partly because I dislike anyone that says "I can't" and it's my general reaction. For an adult, it's generally a cop-out. For a child, there's a different problem which you may or may not know what it is. Even so, Helping the child is nto always tangible. Like the giving the fish or teaching to fish.

Inherently, a 3yo wants to make themselves happy and make you happy. If they make you angry, then you've got their attention and that's most of the battle right there.

"I don't want to hear 'i can't'. I know you can and you know you can. Now do it."

That doesn't mean they get to do the thing alone. If they can't actually do it, you're there to assist when they get to a stumbling block. Then, when finished, even if it was mostly you, the point is that they tried and worked at it. As you reinforce with praise

"see? we both knew you could do it. well done."

they'll totally not care that you helped... they'll be more than happy to be a normal 3 yr old and take all the credit!

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