“Can’t” versus “won’t”

I once heard an entertainer talk about his taste in music. As he spoke, he remarked that his friends often criticised him for only listening to pop music and not listening to more “cultured” music like jazz or classical. The entertainer explained that he would say to his friends that he had tried, on numerous occasions, to develop a taste in classical music, and to hum along to the melodies. However, his issue was that when he listened to a classical piece he found that as soon as he got the hang out of it, it would change.

I can’t remember much else that that man said in his interview but that line has stuck with me: “As soon as you get the hang of it – it changes.”

In my opinion this sums up parenting perfectly.

Children are constantly growing and developing. Every day they seem to learn a new skill. One moment you’re needing to hold your baby’s hands so that they can stand up properly and the next you are desperately trying to hold them back as they try to race ahead without you in the most inconvenient of places, such as the grocery store or doctor’s surgery. In the first five years of a child’s life, in particular, their brain is growing faster than at any other point of their life. No wonder we have such a hard time catching up!

But catch up we must because understanding what our child is capable of at any particular stage of their development should guide our instruction and discipline of their behaviour.

Take for example the child who won’t sit still at the dinner table. There are a number of developmental skills that are at play in this seemingly simple exercise: being able to sit on a chair properly, coordinating using a fork or spoon in order to guide food towards the mouth, being able to follow instruction and engage in conversation at the dinner table at the, and being able to tolerate and manage the inevitable frustrations that may come at the dinner table as the result of trying to coordinate these skills simultaneously. Not to mention being able to patiently endure food that you may not be wild about, or to block out the whining or screaming of your baby sister.

It is very easy in this situation for a parent to become quite snappy and to march down the discipline path in order to have their child comply. However, caution is needed in a situation like this because if your child is still mastering any of the above skills your expectations on their behaviour may be quite unfair. In this instance, we would punishing a child for what they can’t do.

However, the inverse is equally as important. Imagine a child who knows how to ask for their drink bottle or for a snack, and has demonstrated this fact several times by saying “drink please mummy” easily and clearly. Now, if this child the reverts to screaming or hitting in order to obtain their meals and hydration then this is a case for discipline. In this instance your child is demonstrating what they won’t do.

Anything that your child won’t do, requires swift and thorough investigation. If there is some legitimate reason why they won’t, such as pain, then this should be addressed. But if there is not – discipline is required.

No child should be punished for what they can’t do. But if it is something that they won’t do, then there is a strong chance that their behaviour is the result of clear-headed disobedience. And this should always be disciplined.