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Is It Won’t or Can’t?

Posted by Christen Barbercheck on

By Penny Williams 

 

“My kid won’t do his homework.”  
“My kid won’t finish her chores.” 
“My kid won’t tell me how their day was after school.” 
“My kid won’t just do what I ask, when I ask.” 

 

I hear these things from parents frequently. And, we’ve all been there.  

When my neurodivergent kid was in early elementary school, I was constantly saying to him: “Why won’t you just <fill in the blank>?” I didn’t have the knowledge then to know that thinking or saying “why won’t you just” is a red flag for parents and educators. That phrase is a clear indication that expectations are out of reach and that we are looking at behavior through the lens of judgment and contempt, deeming the behavior a won’t. This makes everyone feel bad and doesn’t lead to meaningful change. 

However, my use of the phrase “why won’t you just” was actually signaling that there was something getting in my kid’s way of doing the thing I was asking of him. It wasn’t doable for him at that moment, in that environment, with his neurology, or given his skill levels and developmental delays. He needed support to make it doable. 

I know that now because Ross Greene, Ph.D. taught me that “Kids do well if they can.”  

If we step into challenging situations with our kids assuming that their behavior is a choice and intentional (a won’t), then we prevent improvement and we aren’t meeting the situation with the patience and compassion that our kids deserve.  

We must always assume that kids are doing the best they can — even the kids who seem like they aren’t even trying (especially the kids who seem like they aren’t trying). When we assume kids are doing the best they can, we realize that unmet expectations are a can’t, not a won’t.  

Meeting challenging behavior with curiosity and the mindset that kids get doable things done opens the door to reframing and decoding behavior, meeting kids where they are, and offering support when it’s needed. When we assume the intent behind won’t, we slam that door shut.  

When you think “my kid won’t <blank>,” the only logical next step is fear, intimidation, or punishment, which are unhelpful at best and psychologically damaging at worst. 

But, when you think “my kid can’t <blank>,” your mind immediately starts to attempt to determine why. The why is the key to change and improvement. By diving deep into this understanding, we equip ourselves with the knowledge and empathy needed to support our kids through their challenges in a way that truly serves their best interests. 

 

So let’s look at these adult frustrations again, substituting can’t where there was a won’t.  

“My kid can’t do his homework.”  
“My kid can’t finish her chores.” 
“My kid can’t tell me how their day was after school.” 
“My kid can’t just do what I ask, when I ask.” 

 

As you read through those, your brain instinctively asks why, right?  

Why can’t my kid do his homework?”   
Why can’t my kid just do what I ask, when I ask?” 

 

And now you’re primed to create solutions by analyzing doability. I like to measure doability using the D.E.S.K.S. acronym: Differences, Environment, Skills, Knowledge, Sensitivities.  

 

Differences: Your child’s neurology — their different wiring (ADHD, autism, anxiety, etc…) 
Environment: Their surroundings taking into account sensory, social, and agency/control. 
Skills: Executive functioning, social-emotional skills, etc… 
Knowledge: Do they know what to do, how to do it, or even how to get started? 
Sensitivities: Has something in that moment triggered dysregulation or anxiety? 

 

Analyzing these five areas will help you determine what is getting in your kid’s way and how you can support them for success.  

 

So, next time you find yourself saying, “My kid won’t…,” rephrase it to, “My kid can’t…,” and you’ll be on the path to helping your child succeed, and thrive. 

 

About the Author

A parenting coach for neurodiverse families, Penny Williams is the award-winning author of four books on ADHD, including Boy Without Instructions, host of the Beautifully Complex Podcast, host of the annual Neurodiversity Summits, and co-creator of The Behavior Revolution Program, a parent training program designed to change the narrative on behavior and help parents celebrate and support their kids with ADHD or autism through neuroscience-backed insights, hard-won strategies, compassion, and guidance. Penny empowers parents to help their neurodivergent kids — and families — thrive. 

 

https://parentingADHDandAutism.com  

https://www.instagram.com/pennywilliams/ 

https://www.facebook.com/groups/ParentingADHDandAutism  

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRs9fIFyQQmNVA9qt_WzJWw 

 

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