Removing the word “Can’t”

Having three young boys has presented many challenges these past few years of fatherhood, but many lessons have been learned along the way. At this point into the parenthood game the life lessons learned from now being a dad have outnumbered the lessons I have been able to teach my sons. One of the most valuable of these lessons has been the power of the word can’t. Not long after learning to speak in short sentences my oldest son would become frustrated doing a task and throw down this demotivating c-word. This behavior then seemed to always  preview another negative action labeled with a four letter word, quit.

When my son would say he “I can’t open the box” or “I can’t hit the ball” I would encourage him to change his phrasing to “I’m having trouble”. After what was probably a summer’s worth of reminders and talking about why he shouldn’t use the word can’t it felt like he was starting to understand. It was one of the best feelings as a dad when my three year old son said “I can’t open the door. I mean I am having trouble to open the door.” It seems to have become an expectation or part of the being-stuck routine that after saying he is having trouble he will now ask for help. In discussing this idea with my wife, she found this article suggesting using the phrase “can’t yet” when a child becomes frustrated with a task. This twist makes good sense in that it follows a nice growth mindset, and seems to subconsciously express that the task at hand is indeed possible, it just may take some more effort or acquiring new tools or skills. Here is an example my wife recorded the day after I originally posted this.

As a teacher I thought I could insert this mentality in my classroom and push my classes to “Stop using the word can’t.” It should not have been a surprise, but it was a little disheartening when a freshmen student responded by saying, “Okay, let’s just say cannot, it means the same thing…” Since I do not think this task cannot be accomplished, I pushed on.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” -Henry Ford

I would like to take this notion presented by Henry Ford one large step further. I would like to rid myself of the word can’t. Merriam-Webster defines the word “can’t” as cannot…  “Cannot” is then defined as “to be unable to do otherwise.” I completely understand the benefit, and efficiency, of using the word can’t. I also think there may be hidden benefit in removing the term “can’t” from my vocabulary. On a personal level the word can’t signifies the end. To say that something cannot be done is subconsciously telling my mind that the task at hand, or the idea bouncing through my mind, is impossible. The past couple years in my personal and professional life I have started to really challenge the idea that something might be impossible or, to stick with the theme of this post, that there is really anything that could never be accomplished.

As I have started to hyper-analyse the word “can’t” I have started to notice that people use this term are using the word “can’t” as a cheap substitute for what they really intend on communicating.

For example: a student says they can’t figure out how to solve a quadratic formula. In this case I would argue that instead of “can’t” the student is really saying “I don’t know how to use the quadratic formula” or “I am not sure what to do after I set-up the equation”.  Another example: a colleague says they “can’t stand one more professional development like this.” History has shown the colleague will endure several more lack-luster PD’s before truly making moves to change the circumstances. As I have been taking note while listening to the radio one of my favorites has become “I can’t believe…” In this case I am getting a little nit-picky but from what I have been able to rationalize out, people saying this are usually really saying “I would not have thought that…” or “It bothers me that …” People seem to use this idea of can’t when discussing rules and laws as well. “You can’t smoke in a restaurant.” really is saying that there would be negative consequences for smoking in the restaurant, but of course you could smoke.

I challenge anyone reading this (all 6-12 of you 🙂 ) to find an example when the word can’t absolutely has to be used. If you cannot (of course I mean if you are having trouble) finding a situation that you must use this negative term, why not try to consciously remove it from your vocabulary as well? I think by working through my thoughts and using accurate terminology instead of the default term of “can’t” I will be able to better express my true feelings. Along with this benefit, removing the word can’t from my vocabulary should help reinforce the idea that no matter the circumstance, no matter my current skill-level or experience, Life is an incredibly interesting thing in which I believe anything is possible. Peace.

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