You Can’t

I’ve been having a little bit of trouble with my two teenagers lately. Without dragging their dirty laundry out onto the internet, let’s just say it’s given me much pause. My son is 15 and—well, huge–as in, I can’t lift him around and put him in the car and go home and cry in private the way I used to. My daughter is younger and smaller and less likely to muscle me but she is acutely capable of outwitting me in my more fragile moments.

I’ve taken to YouTube to learn a thing or two about parenting. It’s perfect, anonymous, and I can shrivel up at home with my tail between my legs and hope it’s not as bad as I think. There’s always a shred of hope.

I’ve been following this guy—a parenting counselor. He’s great, very positive, and best of all, he has a video on every topic. His demeanor is so sunny, that you will willingly broach each subject, even though you’re a bit worried that you are, in fact, the worst parent on the planet.

Tonight, I saw a really short video of his listed on my feed. I’m always in a rush and this one was just a little over 7 minutes. Like a heinous car accident, I could not tear myself away from the title: “What Is The Most Psychologically Damaging Thing You Can Say To A Child?”

Ooh. Short and Scary.

So, there I was, figuratively biting my nails, but I went ahead and clicked on the video. Really, who can resist the temptation there—The Most Psychologically Damaging Thing?

When the video began, my fears were put to rest immediately as the counselor listed out a number of ”damaging things, but not The Most Damaging Thing.” Luckily they were things that I generally refrain from, such as calling my kids ‘stupid,’ or telling them that “I should’ve never had kids.” I mean, those are things I may have thought at times but never really believed. As a side note, I do remember my mom calling me an ”eejit” a lot as a kid (she’s Irish), but it was mostly in a somewhat exasperated tone, as in, “Don’t be an eejit!” And, it’s a funny word, so, we all saw that as amusing.

Finally, the counselor got to the most damaging thing: telling your child they can’t do something. His meaning was in the sense that they are not capable of doing something or can’t become something.

The irony here is that I’d just spent the better part of 15 minutes being told by my husband that I couldn’t do something. He saw that I was visibly upset and in an effort to get back on a good note, I pointed him in the direction of this video. With the hope of deflecting him, he agreed to watch the last couple of minutes.

Let me back up. Before the video, I’d been Zillow Surfing for fun. I often like to check out big homes on acreage. ”Homes with a hallway” I like to joke with my friends. The thing is, I live in an amazingly beautiful small town in California, but our house is 850 square feet. That’s not a typo—it’s not 1,850, or 2,850, it’s 850 and one bathroom. I love my small house, but a girl can dream, right?

“Check this out,” I said to my husband. He came over and saw the huge house on Zillow—two houses and a 750 square foot game room on 22 acres to be exact. Immediately the can’ts poured forth.

“You can’t clean that!”

“Where’s the water?

“Is it on a well? Do you need me to call my construction friends and tell you there’s no water?”

I have to admit here that my husband has a fear of me impulsively taking on large projects on my own. Underneath his adamant protestations was probably the huge worry that I may be serious.

Nevertheless, the counselor’s message is heavily weighted in truth. The problem with telling someone they can’t do something is that it dashes their hopes, squashes their dreams, and shrivels them into a smaller version of themselves. Even as an adult, being told I couldn’t do something made me feel crushed and shut down.

Being told something is impossible for you—particularly if it is possible for someone else—creates a disequilibrium within the self that is difficult to reason your way out of.

Of course, I’m an adult, I can only imagine how repeated exposure to negativity can severely alter the trajectory of a child’s life—and dampen his or her search for meaning, self-actualization, and joy.

It certainly does not lead to an open mind, the world of possibilities or the drive to succeed.

I wondered later, as I thought about the ”can’ts” of life: how many of us tell ourselves consciously or unconsciously that we cannot do something, that we are not capable, that we are inherently ‘not good enough?’

Having an ‘I can’t do that’ mentality creates serious roadblocks and ultimately leads to a marked inability to act.

I believe the way around these roadblocks is to look each challenge squarely in the eye and parse out the elements that you ‘can’ do. For example, looking at a home on Zillow could be seen as a first step, and if I were serious about pursuing it further, I could drive by a couple of the homes. I could talk to someone, learn about it, and slowly, those impediments would melt away and become the pathway to what you want.

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