Hot, salty tears slipping out of my little girl’s round, blue eyes and smudging her freckled cheeks.
“They can do it, Mama. They can. And I can’t.”
Her little voice was barely above a whisper and I had to lean in close to catch the haltering words.
“They can do what, Sissy?” I probed gently.
The words squeezed out along with a few more tears. “The other girls in Sunday School can read. And I can’t.”
My hand reached to smooth back a wisp of dirty-blonde hair from my eight-year old’s damp cheeks. I wished I could just as easily flick away the pain that was breaking my little girl’s heart… and confidence.
Mama, I can’t had been the mantra from this little girl’s mouth over the past two years.
I can’t read.
I can’t do it.
I can’t remember the words.
I can’t… I can’t… I can’t.
Unlike her bold and adventurous older sister, this tender one holds the fragile strings of her confidence with unsure hands.
She is skilled at so many things. So many.
But in that moment, all she could focus on was the very big and daunting: I CAN’T READ.
After so many long months of struggle, it was beginning to be all I could focus on, as well. Many, many mornings ended with both of us in tears of frustration and defeat.
A year later, she is a fluid albeit still blossoming reader. In fact, just this week I discovered her “having school” for two of her younger brothers. She sat perched on the couch, reading a book to them.
Her little freckled face just beamed when she exclaimed to me, “I taught them how to read two words, MaMa!”
She felt proud.
She felt like she could do it.
I just smiled and thought, What a long way we’ve come!
I know that reading won’t be the only “I can’t” that my little girl crashes into. Life has a way of throwing obstacles in our path when we’re not looking, and sometimes it scares me to think how her timid little heart might handle those challenges.
The reading obstacle is mostly behind us now (I thought we would never get this far!), but I realize that the challenge of fortifying her heart with confidence is definitely still a work in progress.
Here are two things my husband and I are striving to do to help our “I can’t” child grow up with confidence:
- Cultivate a vocabulary that says “I can.”
When we were in the midst of that three-year struggle with reading, I sought to help my daughter replace the “I can’ts” with more positive phrases.
Instead of I can’t tie my shoes! I’m so dumb!, how about I’M LEARNING to tie my shoes.
Instead of I can’t read, it’s too hard!, how about I’M LEARNING to read. I can do this!
Instead of I can’t ever get it right! how about I’M LEARNING how to do this… I’ll get it!
The truth is, there will always be something in life that we can’t do well enough, or don’t know enough about. But we CAN learn and grow.
After a few months of repeating this over and over to my daughter, I overheard her telling her younger brother one afternoon, “Bubby, don’t say I can’t! Say, I’m learning.”
I think my smile took over my whole face!
2. Be intentional about verbally affirming your child.
My children each need to know that I believe in them, and your children need the same from you.
Verbal affirmation is especially important for kids who struggle with confidence, because they already have misgivings about their abilities and innate value as little human beings.
My youngest daughter’s Love Language is “Words of Affirmation,” so this was a HUGE area for me to get right. I tend to have high expectations of myself and my children, so it’s easy for me to not cut them any slack.
When a child is truly doing his or her best, and still struggling, it’s time to lower expectations and start getting very intentional about affirming. I’m not talking about flattering your kids or inflating their egos with empty “compliments!”
Here are a few phrases to verbally affirm a struggling child:
Wow, you’re so talented at building things! How did you figure out how to motorize those Legos?
What a beautiful drawing! God has given you an amazing gift!
I saw that you shared your new toy with your little sister. I appreciate your kind heart so much.
Instead of making “performance” the main issue (especially since these kids generally “perform” poorly compared to their more confident friends and siblings), focus on affirming your son or daughter because of their innate gifts (each child has those!) and character qualities, use your words to direct them back to the One who created them with those qualities.
Planting seeds of confidence and security in our kids’ hearts is a process; it doesn’t happen overnight, but I believe our affirming words and attitudes can have a huge impact on their lives.
Do you have an “I can’t” child in your home?
Were you an “I can’t” child?
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