The can-do attitude versus the can’t-do attitude

One of the differences between taking children (or anyone) seriously and paternalistic parenting (or any kind of relationship in which the parties are not taking one another seriously) is in the attitudes. Most people seem to have a can’t-do attitude. They have their plans, and it seems not to occur to them that plans can be changed if they are no longer unproblematic. They have their self-imposed limitations, and it seems not to occur to them that perhaps they are not quite as limited as they think. Possibilities abound, but what they see is impossibilities. We can make it work, but what they see is, it will never work and there is no point even trying. They can do, but they think they can’t do. Their vision of what is possible is blinkered, artificially narrow. It is as if, for them, life is all pessimistic “can’t do”, “impossible”, or “won’t work.” When a loved one, boss or friend makes a request of them, the answer is all about saying no, with ‘good reasons’: it’s impossible, why it can’t happen, how they can’t do it, and how it will never work.

When parents have a can’t-do attitude with their children, their children learn that problems are not soluble, that they cannot get what they want in life so they might as well give up trying, that people who love you nevertheless do not embrace your wishes, that they are not worth it. They learn that there is no point expressing their wishes. They learn not to have wishes. They learn the same sad, pessimistic, blinkered, hobbled can’t-do attitude as their parents. They learn that life is suffering and that they can’t do anything about it. They learn powerlessness. Sad resignation.

We parents are exhorted to drum into our children this depressing, life-sapping can’t-do attitude on the grounds that life is suffering (“they need to know they can’t always get what they want”) so they need to have it instilled them from an early age. When we go against the ‘experts’, not to mention our friends, neighbours, and our family members who care so much and want the best for our children just like we do, everyone is giving us dire warnings about how our beloved children are going to grow up unable to function in the real world. Entitled. Selfish. Perhaps even criminals.

Going against “the way it’s always been done” or “what everyone knows” takes huge courage. Nerves of steel. Confidence many of us do not always have. What if we’re wrong? What if we go against the usual advice and it all goes horribly wrong? Then it will be our fault. Then we will have failed our beloved children. It feels safer to stick with the standard ‘expert’ advice. Who am I, a mere parent, to question the received wisdom of all those ‘experts’?

So we all keep on bringing our children up with the same can’t-do attitude that has blighted so many lives for so long. And all the children then grow up with the same blinkered view of what’s possible, the same inability to see that so much more is possible, their minds saddled with the can’t-do attitude, hobbled, suffering. And then they in turn dutifully do the same to their own children. Who do the same to their own children. Down through the generations. Endless despair.

And all the time, none of that grimness was necessary.
Problems are soluble.
Wishes matter.
You can get what you want in life.
You can do.
You.

Vastly more is possible than can’t-do people think.

So what does the can-do attitude look like? It looks like viewing life as a glorious adventure full of fun and joy and laughter, full of possibilities, full of interesting, enjoyable challenges that we are relishing meeting. It looks like problems are soluble. It looks like wishes not only matter, but wishes are positively great and let’s have more of them: there is nothing more fun and thrilling than finding a way to solve an ‘impossible’ problem or meet an ‘impossible’ wish. The more wishes we have and meet, the better! Every time we find a way to meet our wish or our beloved family member’s wish, that is solving a wonderful problem. The more such problems we solve in our lives and with our family members, the more able we are to solve such problems, and the more able we are to create lives worth living.

The gloomy can’t-do attitude says: meeting a wish this time will lead to an endless stream of impossible wishes we can’t meet. Wishes are an overwhelming burden. Let’s pour cold water over every wish to nip the whole ‘wishes’ thing in the bud.

The can-do attitude says: meeting a wish this time will lead to an endless stream of fascinating, fun wishes we can have a blast finding ways to meet: wishes are interesting! Wishes are a source of adventures! The more the better! What a joy to come up with the most out-of-the-box solution ever!

The parent operating from “can’t-do” says “no”, or “can’t-do”, or “impossible” or “that’s an interesting idea, but no, we can’t do that now.” The can’t-do parent might say “I’ll try” or “We’ll see.” Or “Here are the Very Good Reasons your wish can’t be met.” When we are being run by “can’t-do” we change the subject or try to distract our child from the wish the child is expressing.

The can-do parent says “yes!”, or “can-do!”, or “things that seem impossible often aren’t! Let’s go for it! We can do hard things!” or “Wow! What an interesting idea, let’s find a way to do that now.” The can-do parent might say less and do more, actively, productively using all the energy that can’t-do people waste in coming up with reasons they can’t do, to find a way to do. The can-do parent embraces and welcomes the wish the child is expressing.

We can all be can-do instead of can’t-do. Whatever our operating attitudes are or have been, they are not immutable. We are human beings with capable, creative minds. We are all growing and changing all the time.

When the can-do person has a crisis of confidence or everything is going wrong, and a pessimistic, critical, can’t-do voice in their head is saying “This time it really is impossible!” or “What planet are you on? There is no way in hell you can do this” or “Are you deluded?! If you think you can solve this problem, you seriously need help!” or “You are not capable!” or “See, I told you it’s not possible. What part of the phrase ‘not possible’ don’t you get?” (hey, we are all human!), the can-do person replies: “The part of the phrase ‘not possible’ I don’t get is the ‘not’!”

And when that inner can’t-do voice says “Who are you trying to kid? It’s me you are talking to. We both know you are incapable and that this is insane,” the can-do person listens patiently to everything their inner can’t-do voice needs to say, thanks it for sharing, reassures it that everything will be ok, and sets about solving the problem, meeting the wish, finding a way. Because that voice in our head that is so certain that we can’t do, and that problems are not soluble, is not actually the revealed truth. It is fallible, and actually it tends to be mistaken more often than not.

It is not that can-do people do not have such a voice in their heads at times, they just do not mistake the voice for the inerrant word of a godlike being. They neither obey the voice nor stomp on it. They simply let it be. It means well. It is trying to protect us. Maybe it needs a reassuring hug. It lacks knowledge. That part of our mind doesn’t know that we can do. But we do.

Meeting wishes, whether our own or those of our loved ones, is a sheer delight. It is not a burden, it gives us joy to gladden the hearts of our loved ones – to see their eyes dancing and shining with joy, to see them skipping with enthusiasm, to notice how interesting and interested they are – so many undreamt-of, unexpected wonders, so many new vistas opened up, so many new possibilities, new and even more interesting problems to relish solving.

And the more problems we find a way to solve, and the more wishes we find a way to meet, and the more we get on and do instead of being run by our can’t-do part, the more we are able to do. The more can-do we become.

And the more we do this with our beloved children, the more they themselves are experiencing and learning the can-do attitude – that problems actually are soluble, and that we ourselves can solve them. The more we embrace and actively embody our can-do spirit, the more our children can be learning that those who love you love to delight you, and that when you love someone it is a joy to delight them. And the more they can see that when a problem seems impossible to solve, being in the process of actually solving it can be a fascinating and exhilarating adventure, and that every solved problem brings us to a new, more beautiful place, with even more fun, delight and adventure to be had solving whatever impossible problem we discover there.

Does the flexible, optimistic, can-do attitude make life more chaotic and less predictable than the can’t-do attitude which (for example) views plans as unalterable? Sometimes, yes. But that is all part of the fun. (Really! It is when we take the unexpected route that serendipitous discoveries tend to happen.) If our plans are fixed, not open to question, that presents an obstacle to solving problems in that area.

I understand. Life is messy enough with children without adding to the chaos by opening everything up to question, changes, new ideas, meeting unexpected wishes, and solving unexpected problems. The chaos can be a shock to the system when you become a parent even if you are a can’t-do-and-proud-of-it coercionist who sticks rigidly to plans come what may. The idea of throwing what little remaining predictability you feel you have out of the window and embracing the can-do spirit of taking children seriously may sound daunting or more than any mere mortal could possibly manage. I get it! You are not the only one with a can’t-do voice!

But although it might well all seem mad and impossible and overwhelming at first, if you just keep trying, keep reaching for the can-do in the stratosphere beyond the storm clouds of the can’t do, keep getting back on the horse whenever you get thrown off, keep putting one foot in front of the other even when you have no clue where you are going, let alone how to get there, never give up, keep on picking yourself up and finding another way through, there will come a moment when you look back and realise, to your astonishment, just how far you have come. And sure, the mountain you are climbing is infinitely high, and the top never seems to get any closer. Nevertheless, when you look back at how far you have climbed, how many seemingly-impossible problems you have solved, it will take your breath away. Forget about how far there is to climb. That is unknowable anyway. Just enjoy the climbing you are doing with your family right here, right now in this very moment. There is only now.

Here is a concrete example of what the difference between the can’t-do attitude and the can-do attitude looks like in practice.

Tonight’s dinner is all planned and ready to cook or perhaps even already cooked. Some of it is perishable and needs to be eaten today. But when we are out in the garden, the succulent smell of barbecuing meat wafts over the fence from our neighbours’ garden, and my husband or child instantly wants to have a barbecue instead of the salad I have planned. What a brilliant idea, everyone else is saying. There is skipping and beaming faces, and excited, enthusiastic conversation happening.

But I am operating from my can’t-do part. Dinner Is Already Planned, the salad must be eaten today. Money is tight! We can’t be wasting money by throwing out the expensive salad whose use-by date is today! The best we can do is have a barbeque at the weekend. What’s the problem with waiting a couple of days?! It will give us all time to look forward to it!

No one is persuaded, but I insist. So the family does without the barbecue and everyone is miserable. The eyes that were dancing and shining are now dead. The conversation that had been bubbling and fizzing with vibrant energy is now flat. The warm connection is lost.

And somehow, when the weekend comes around, no one much feels like having a barbecue any more.

Or perhaps your can’t do part tells you that you don’t have to make the whole family suffer: you can limit the suffering to one person: you. This can’t-do part of yours, which thinks life is a zero-sum game, and that for others to ‘win’ you must ‘lose’ or sacrifice yourself, tells you that you yourself should make do with the salad while the rest of the family gets the delicious barbeque. You no longer feel like eating the salad, but Someone Has To, because … (What’s the modern equivalent of ‘starving children in Africa’? Something to do with the environment?)

So now you are sitting there, forcing down the salad, and poisoning the barbecue atmosphere with your self-sacrificial sad martyr thing. And you can’t understand why the other family members do not even seem grateful. After all, look what you have done for them. Surely it’s not too much to expect a little gratitude for your sacrifice? And they are not even enjoying it?! What a waste of money that was! Should never have agreed to it in the first place!

How could anyone possibly enjoy the barbecue in such a poisonous atmosphere?

Another problem unsolved. Can’t do. Why even bother trying? ‘Problems are not soluble.’ Resignation. Pessimism. Lost vitality. A lost opportunity. Lost connection. Lost hope.

So what might the can-do approach look like?

Suppose my can’t-do part as before tells me in no uncertain terms that Dinner Is Already Planned, the salad must be eaten today. Money is tight! We can’t be wasting money by throwing out the expensive salad whose use-by date is today! How about we have a barbeque at the weekend instead? What’s the problem with waiting a couple of days?! It will give us all time to look forward to it!

Instead of viewing my can’t-do part’s concerns as the manifest truth that may not be questioned, and thus concluding that there is no way to solve this problem, I start questioning everything. I start looking at the problem in the wider context. I know that problems are soluble, and by that I mean that it is possible to create a solution that delights everyone including me. Seeing how everyone else in the family is all excited about the barbecue idea, of course we are going to have a barbecue! Getting what we want in life is so precious! Knowing what we want is itself precious too! The idea of squelching my beloved family’s brilliant idea to have a family barbecue hurts my heart. (I literally get heartbreak pain at the thought!)

Already, my penny-pinching can’t-do voice is growing quieter, but the problem is not yet solved such that my inner conflict is resolved. Solving a problem does not mean just weighing up which of the wishes is less intense, or which wish is shared by the fewest people, and having that wish go unmet. We can do so much better than that. We can come up with a solution which we all love.

Problems are soluble and we can solve them. Can do!

As I am questioning all my theories and assumptions and still keep coming up against the penny-pinching not wanting to waste the salad thing, I make a mental note to take a critical look at all that stuff later if not now, and I keep looking, keep exploring the problem from different angles, looking at the wider context, knowing that a solution is definitely possible, not giving up.

No, I am not going to turn myself into a waste disposal unit into which I am pushing the salad in the name of ‘not wasting money’! 😳 (What does it do to us to treat ourselves as a dustbin or a waste disposal unit?!)

And then suddenly it hits me! When I was at the Cordon Bleu Cookery School (yes, this bit is a true story!), I was introduced to a particularly delicious lettuce and pea soup. That may have been the first soup I actually liked, in fact. I had not expected to like it, but it was spectacular. And I have not made that soup more than once or twice since I left Cordon Bleu in 1987! It is time to make it again! I am ecstatic! I can introduce my beloved family to that special soup tomorrow, using the salad, and I know they will love it!

I make the soup immediately and chill it for tomorrow’s dinner. It will be even better if chilled overnight! Win-win!

And now there is no painful unresolved problem ruining everything. We are all happy, all enjoying the barbecue, all connecting and connected, all eyes shining, all hearts singing, conversation flowing, creativity flying free. Problems are soluble, and we can solve them. We can do.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2022, ‘The can-do attitude versus the can’t-do attitude’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/the-can-do-attitude-versus-the-cant-do-attitude/

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