The Difference Between I Can’t and I Won’t

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I can’t.

Yes, you can.

He makes that sound, the one between a whine and a groan. He’s sitting down, but he somehow manages to flounce where he sits before screwing up his face and his gumption and yelling:

No. I. CAN’T.

Yes. Yes, you can.

But kids know, don’t they? They know their limitations, or their imagined limitations. Something, instinct maybe, holds them back when they approach that thin, red line. They know that on the other side of the line they’ll find frustration and tears and—probably—pain.

Maybe it’s because of the fresh, if subconscious, memory of those first, halting steps as a toddler and of the many falls that followed. Maybe it’s because all they’ve known since they exited the womb was long stretches of failure, punctuated by incremental moments of triumph that almost immediately were relegated to the foothills of achievement that crouch in the shadow of the mountain of What Else You Got?

Which brings us back to the short conversation above between me and our 4-year-old son.

He turns 5 soon, and still prefers to urinate sitting down. While this might be one of those embarrassing developmental TMI facts that prompts the teenage him to one day burn my laptop in effigy, I feel it is important to point out that—in this case, at least—he was wrong.

He can, in fact, pee standing up. He has done so many times at home, at preschool and out and about. I’m not concerned. I’m monitoring the situation.

I’m trying to snatch those incremental moments of triumph from the parenting ether, the way we used to catch drifting fireflies in a Mason jar on a summer night back home in North Carolina. I want to set those parenting moments in their jar up on the back porch rail and sway to their rhythmic glow, on and off, on and off, all night long.

What he might have said instead, what I would have found difficult to refute, was I won’t. Saying I won’t would have meant that even if he believed he might succeed, he wouldn’t make the attempt. I won’t is running away from the pain on the other side of the thin, red line. There is no hope behind I won’t. I won’t is a room with no doors and no windows, a self-built cell. I won’t is fear of change.

He didn’t say that, though.

What he said was I can’t.

There is hope behind I can’t. It means that, based on experience, you believe the odds of success are so stacked against you that failure is just about inevitable—but it also means you acknowledge there is a chance, however small, for success. I can’t is optimism standing on its head, caught mid-way through a somersault. I can’t is acknowledging the pain of growth and change, pausing to gather your wits and guts, and stepping over that line anyway.

Our 4-year-old will progress. He will forget his trepidation about becoming that kid who pees standing up. One day, without even thinking, he’ll just do it. And then he’ll do it again, and again, and that thin, red line will be behind him forever.

And as that line recedes, there’ll be another. And another. And another.

I can’t, he’ll say.

And hopefully, he’ll hear that voice from somewhere inside, from somewhere he won’t even recognize as a memory.

Yes. Yes, you can.

And he’ll step across.

 

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