A client from long ago tells me that one of the most life-changing things I shared with her as I coached her daughter through some early learning and behavioral challenges was this: “If she could, she would.”
In more than 14 years as a family coach, this seemingly simple idea—If they could, they would—has unlocked solutions to some of the most stubborn problems children face. This single piece of clarity can transform how you understand your child and how you can be more successful in your efforts to help them. Here’s why.
So often when a child’s behavior frustrates or disappoints us, or outright angers us, we’re quick to assume they’re being willful or defiant. Or maybe lazy or self-centered. I’ve heard adults write off a child with attention issues or poor math or reading scores, saying “he is just not trying.” Or label a socially awkward or even socially isolated child as a “natural loner”—in preschool! Or blame the family tree: You’re just like your father! (Or mother, or grandparent or sibling, whoever is known in the family for similar behavior.) We’ve all been in that exasperated moment when our child’s meltdowns or dust-ups can trigger old, reflexive parenting responses: How many times have I told you? What were you thinking? Why can’t you just do as you’re asked? Try harder! And we’ve all seen just how ultimately ineffective that kind of scolding, cajoling and shaming are.
While there are times when a child may be stubborn or selfish, neuroscience and a growing body of behavioral literature hold that often it is a lack of skills—specifically the brain-based “executive function” skills that hold him back—not willfulness or laziness. Executive function is the brain’s hub of skills such as memory, organization, planning, self-regulation and the ability to modify our behavior in response to others. When these skills lag, for whatever reason, the timeworn advice about pushing through, trying harder and just making it happen just do not apply. In fact, such blaming and shaming only make matters worse.
One of the grounding truths that modern psychology and child development research tells us is that, generally speaking, children do not willfully set about to self-sabotage, to fail at being a kid and disappoint their parents. Every child wants to succeed; every child wants to “grow up” and develop the mastery to be a capable human being. To do that, they must learn to work with their own unique brain wiring to develop executive function skills responsible for organizing thoughts challenges and with their own unique brain wiring.
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The idea that a child “would if he could” is an important distinction because it becomes a lens through which you can look at your child and reframe your understanding of him in the moment. Once your child begins to develop the skills necessary—whether it’s a small step in getting homework done or managing big emotions—his successes will energize him to do more.
So, set aside every discouraging assumption you’ve ever had about your child’s social behavior and replace them with this singular truth: If they could, they would. If they had the basic skills to manage a particular learning challenge, social situation, or intense emotion then they would. Their inability to do so says they need your support to brave the learning curve. In many ways, this powerful philosophical shift is easier than you might think. You don’t have to be some Super Parent with a PhD or Buddha brain. Here are five steps to turn this fresh insight into action:
Err on the side of believing your child has the capacity to learn and grow, and basically good intentions.
Aim for what I call positive predictability: responses that encourage, illuminate, engage and empower your child. Positive predictability is not about empty praise. It is about recognizing the qualities of character and effort that your child has shown in specific moments, whether in a big way or in smaller but important ways: when he shows empathy for someone else, takes pride in something he does, steps outside his comfort zone with a new experience, or rebounds from a failure and tries again. Your habit of noticing and celebrating these moments, and not just the “big wins,” celebrates the nitty-gritty process of growth and change, and cultivates your child’s confidence that he’s got what it takes. Try comments that begin with “I noticed…” or “You showed…” to highlight something positive.
Identify sources of stress for your child and concrete ways to reduce it, since stress in one area can lead to stress behavior in other seemingly unrelated areas. If your child is struggling with reading, for instance, that stress may erupt in social dust-ups at school or meltdowns at home.
Talk with your child about his experience of what’s going on. Show genuine curiosity and respect him as the expert on his own feelings and experience. You can say, “It feels like you are working hard and this is not easy for you.” Or “What makes that hard for you?” Ask your child how much effort they have to put in to something they excel at, something that comes naturally to them. Then ask them how much effort it takes to do something hard that they’re not good at. “How does it feel when you have to work harder?” A challenge they enjoy may take a lot of work—it may be “hard”—but their experience of that effort is very different. Encourage them to discuss why this might be and how everyone has areas where they just struggle and have to work harder—and manage the feelings that come with it. By taking the time and showing your genuine interest in your child’s experience, you give him a chance to practice connecting internal feelings with outward behavior. That’s one of the executive function skill he needs in order to change behaviors that aren’t working for him.
It’s easy for a child to lose heart in an ongoing struggle to learn and grow. Show your confidence, not in her ability to accomplish desired outcomes (she needs to build the skills and confidence to do that!) but in the qualities of character you know she has that help any of us tackle challenges. The big truth is that everyone is working on something. You might share a story about something that was hard for you. And how you worked on it. This is important because your child must understand that sometimes change is hard and she must feel that you are a team and recognize the strengths she brings to the challenge.
If they could, they would means acknowledging that your child may have areas in which he needs skill development. You wouldn’t expect a child to hit a baseball without learning how to swing and what stance to use. The good news is that the most concrete skills, even managing emotions, shifting from one task to another or learning to create routines for yourself in the morning can be developed. Give them that chance, support the process, and they’ll develop the skills they need to succeed.