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Turn “I Can’t!” into “I Can!” with These Confidence Boosters for Kids

Photo by Jakob / Stocksy United / 182405
Photo by Jakob / Stocksy United

By Cheryl Flanders

“I can’t”: I can’t tie my shoes. I can’t hit the ball. I can’t put my shirt on. I can’t write my name! I can’t, I can’t, I CAN’T!

“I can’t” can be a little heartbreaking to hear as a parent. To an adult’s ears, “I can’t” sounds self-defeating, as if they already have child self-esteem issues (even though they’re only four).

So when that little preschooler (who, just last week, proudly held up a big sheet of paper with their name scribbled across it, yelling “Mommy, look!”) begins to utter the words, “No, I can’t”, It’s natural to wonder what changed and how you can get them to “I can” again.

Fear not. The “I can’t” is a common, normal, and healthy phase for children to go through.

Children will utter the words “I can’t” even when they can—and a lack of self-esteem isn’t usually the reason. When children are tired, hungry, or simply mentally exhausted by all the new things they are trying to learn and process about the world around them (which is a lot), it can be hard to persevere. Oftentimes, children just need a break before feeling ready to push forward. In other words, “I can’t” often means, “I just don’t want to right now.”

Sometimes, “I can’t” just means “I need to pause and take a break”—and that’s healthy!

Photo by Jovo Jovanovic / Stocksy / 1963791
Photo by Jovo Jovanovic / Stocksy

If you start to pay attention to when your child says, “I can’t”, you’ll likely find the phrase most often rears its head when children are working hard on a big task or a new skill (writing the alphabet, for example, or riding a bike). So, in fact, when it looks like your child is giving up too easily, they’re actually working really hard!

Still, you want to support and encourage your child to get to “I can” again. Here are four easy ways to encourage children.

Confidence Booster #1: Help Your Child Take a Break

One of the quickest (and easiest) ways to help them is to take a break from the frustrating task at hand. Go toss a ball, goof around, or read a story (anything that you know they will enjoy doing and won’t take a lot of effort). This can also help calm them down. Hopefully when they come back to it, they’ll have a fresher mind.

Confidence Booster #2: Focus on the Effort, Not the Outcome

Focusing praise on your child’s effort instead of the outcome can help children who worry about doing things right or wrong.  

As hard as it is, you may want to consider replacing the phrase “Good job!” with “I see you are doing X, Y, or Z.” Why? Acknowledging the effort rather than the outcome will give kids confidence to try things without needing praise for the end result.  

For example, if your child is trying to name of each letter, but can’t get past the letter “g,” calmly (and with a big smile) let them know that you just watched them say the names of the letters a-f. It goes something like this: “I see that you pointed and said the names of the letters ‘a,’ ‘b,’ ‘c,’ ‘d,’ ‘e,’ and ‘f.’” That’s all it takes!

This approach shows that you are paying attention to their efforts without placing any value or judgment (that’s the “good” in “good job”) to the outcome.

Confidence Booster #3: Be Mindful of Using Too Many “Compliance Statements”

Think about all you ask your child to do—and all you ask him not to do. All these requests can be overwhelming for a child and cause a shutdown, which may lead to a case of, “I can’t.”

Instead, consider turning compliance statements into “curiosity questions.”

Confidence Booster #4: Hug Them

“I can’t” can be frustrating for parents, too! But remember, it is normal and your child is likely responding to the stresses of everyday life. Simply asking, “What can I do to help you feel more self-confident?” will go a long way in helping your child push past the “I can’t” into “I can!”

It’s nice to remember too, that we grown-ups can get frustrated ourselves when trying something new. (How did that Zumba class go for you the first time you took it? Whoa, Latin dance moves!) Let them know that you, too, can get frustrated. This takes the pressure off of them feeling like they’re the only ones experiencing difficulty, and shows them you (their biggest fan) have empathy for what they’re going through.

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