I can’t handle myself well 100% of the time

Can’t vs won’t: circumstances and context are everything

Helping our children become independent and responsible is hard. Their ability to handle themselves well is anything but stable.

The other morning, Keener’s excitement for school was at a 12 out of 10. It was pajama day and he was beyond excited to wear his police pajamas to school. In his excitement, his shirt got turned inside out. He asked for help and I walked him through how to turn it back the right way on his own. Usually, he is thrilled to learn how to do something independently. Usually, he would turn it inside out again just to practice this newly learned skill again. This time was different.

After he turned it right side out, he then asked for help getting his shirt on. He just turned five and has been independently been getting dressed for quite some time. He knows how to put his shirt on. But in that moment, for whatever reason, he wanted help. He claimed he needed help. Although it seemed rather inconsistent to me, given how excited he was for school, I decided to help him put his shirt on. Once I had a few minutes, I pulled out an old favorite which discusses can’t vs. won’t.

Can’t vs. Won’t

No Drama Discipline, by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, is one of my favorite “parenting” books. It’s a positive parenting approach, focusing on the relationship, connection, and developmental abilities of children. I often think about this part of the book that discusses can’t vs. won’t as it holds true for all of us. I have the ability to be a loving, patient and kind parent, but am I ALL the time? Absolutely not. When I’m tired, overwhelmed, sick, frustrated, or hungry, it is much harder to be patient.

Truthfully, the other night, I told my kids I can’t do stories tonight. I’m just too tired and my head hurts. Thinking back on that — if I was absolutely forced to, I could have told them a quick bedtime story. But in that moment, my tank felt empty. My head was pounding which made the thought of telling them a story feel impossible. The book reminds us, “The truth is that for all of us, our capacity fluctuates given our state of mind and state of body, and these states are influenced by so many factors — especially in the case of a developing brain in a developing child.”

This was the perfect reminder I needed. My kids are just as human as I am. They are influenced by their own feelings, circumstances, stressors, etc. which is what makes being a parent so challenging. I am dealing with my own stuff, in my own way, and they are dealing with their own stuff, in their own way. Even more reason to be filled with compassion for ourselves and those around us. The book says, “Simply because we’re human, our capacity to handle ourselves well is not stable and constant.”

Not stable and constant

That hit the nail on the head. “Our capacity to handle ourselves well is not stable and constant.” This is why I am sometimes able to be the patient calm non yelling parent I want to be and sometimes I am anything but. This is why Keener is sometimes able to get dressed on his own and sometimes needs help. This is why Grace is generally loving and safe but will also blatantly kick over a full cup of water. None of us are able to handle ourselves well with the consistency that we would like — our kids are no different.

And here lies the challenge: I often think I am enabling my kids by helping them with tasks they can already do for themselves. I want them to be independent and responsible. Part of me wants to take the approach that I’m not helping you, you got this. And sometimes that is exactly what they need from me. And sometimes it isn’t. This is where I wish I had the perfect solution to share. If you clap your hands three times and turn in a circle, you will know exactly what your kid needs from you. Sadly, no such luck.

What I do know is this:

  • Accepting that my kids are just as human as me has helped me tremendously.
  • Paying attention to myself and my own needs — showing up for myself — allows me to better show up for my kids.
  • Telling my kids just how human I am allows them to see me as vulnerable, capable of making mistakes and trying to fix them.
  • Leading with empathy, trying to remember to offer a hug instead of a punishment may be just what they need.
  • Context, circumstances, time of day, and hunger levels impact everyone’s behavior.

Look for patterns

Lastly, patterns are always helpful. Is Keener asking for help getting dressed every day? Is this part of a bigger issue where he has regressed in other areas as well? Is he asking for help getting his shoes on and for other tasks that he used to do independently? Is he jealous of time I’m spending with Mack? Is there something else going on? OR does he simply just need help, for whatever reason, right now with his shirt? If this is part of a new pattern of behavior, the before school rush is unlikely the best time to address a larger concern. For this particular instance, he simply needed help putting his shirt on. His capacity to handle himself well was not stable or constant. So I helped him.


  1. Excellent insight which captures the essence of how everything may not be what it seems. Although “I can’t” is really often expressing “I won’t” which as we know has a far different meaning and reflects grabbing control, it may be an honest genuine request for help no matter the reason. I find it fascinating that this occurred with Keener being so excited about what he was wearing and looking forward to the day. It may be that his emotions might have just been overwhelming and he sensed that and wanted help.
    I loved your conclusion:
    For this particular instance, he simply needed help putting his shirt on. His capacity to handle himself well was not stable or constant. So I helped him. PERFECT!!

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