While I’ll be the first to admit that I can be a control freak of a mother, there’s actually a lot of things that may bother other moms that I just couldn’t care less about. I celebrate kid-inspired mismatched outfits and random sock pairings. I think it’s great when they push all the buttons in the elevator, cause you know, adventure. Spic and span my house is not. Being able to play every sport and instrument; never going to happen.
But there is one behavior that I just cannot abide in my children: self-imposed limitations.
There is one expression that I simply will not allow my children to say, and unfortunately it’s one that I hear a lot at this stage of development. “I can’t do it”. “I can’t do it”, a phrase that comes with floppy limbs and high pitches and is usually expressed as if auditioning for a Victorian Melodrama. My kneejerk response is always the same “In this house we say ‘I CAN do it, I just need a little help’ “. And then I work with the floppy protagonist on doing it together (even if I’m doing 90% of the work- 10% still counts as not getting off the hook).
Richard Bach so sagely wrote, “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they are yours.” I explain to the boys that if they tell themselves they cannot do something, they surely can’t.
And why am I so uptight about this? After all, it’s definitely easier to just do something for them than to have this perpetual conversation and to assist them with the task at hand for the zillionth time. In part it was because I was raised with the same empowered ethos, with a mother who sold encyclopedias and handed me the relevant volume and a cursory “look in up” whenever I asked her any question at all (back in the pedagogical dark ages before Google gave us light). A family of Montessorians who believed in executive function and child empowerment. But I will tell you flat out where it does not come from- my own conquering of self-limitations. No way, Jose. Quite the contrary.
On a good day, I can tell you without hesitation that my insistence that my children reframe their capabilities from the spirit of defeat to the spirit of possibility is that I am trying really hard to demobilize my own self-limitation and I don’t want them to struggle like I have. That I have spent a lot of years arguing for my limitation a if it were the air I breathed. We teach what we want to learn, after all, and my poor children are my captive guinea pigs for continual brain tattooing of all the lessons that I’m trying to learn myself. The truth is, I beat back a steady stream of “I can’ts” in my own mind every day. “I can’t do that. I’m too old”. “I can’t do that, I’m too inexperienced” “I can’t do that, it didn’t work when I tried” “I can’t do that, it’s all been done before” Etc ad nasuem. The melodrama in my own mind has been quite something.
I can’t for the life of me remember who said this first (and here even Google AND World Book fail me- if you know the attribute, kindly credit it in comments below), but I remember exactly where I was when I first heard: “You Were Born Into A Mansion. Why Do you Insist on Living in One Room”. This idea that expansion and abundance is our birthright, yet we shutter ourselves into a very small experience through our own self-imposed limitations.
Surely, you’ve heard of the experiment of the tank of goldfish that was divided in two by a glass partition for several months, keeping the goldfish relegated to only a portion of the expansive tank. After several months, the glass was removed, but the goldfish never attempted to swim beyond the past barrier, prisoners by their own past conditioning. And these are creatures with like a five second memory, where every day is truly a new one. Imagine what we’re all up against, us with our lives of perpetual slings and arrows. It’s no wonder why we all stay cramped up in a tiny room in our own potential mansions. It’s no wonder we tell ourselves there is no other alternative than the comfort of our own self-enforced limitations.
But I want my kids to have better. I want them to be better defended against the sea of CAN’TS, both internal and external. At the very least, I want them to at least have the defense of a mantra that their unreasonable and unyielding mother drilled into their pudding heads. “I CAN do it, I just need a little help”. So when life starts presenting them bigger obstacles than spreading peanut butter on crumbly bread or pulling off a tight jacket, they will at least have a moment to consider the possibility of their own potential in the situation. That they might feel comfortable looking for help to get to the next step rather than throwing in the towel altogether (as I myself have done so many times).
And at the very least, maybe just maybe it will give me less work to do, too.