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How to turn "you can't" into "you can"

Updated: Oct 7, 2019

Play reel.

Mum (in a tense voice) : “You can’t use a knife, you’re too young!”

A boy has just asked if he can help his mum prepare dinner. The mum is frazzled … she’s got to get dinner on the table then she's got to finish off that long-overdue article she’s supposed to send off.

The child is frustrated because they don’t get to try. The adult is anxious and nervous that something will go wrong and they’ll have to deal with it, which they don’t have time for.

Let’s press pause on this scenario.

If we had a screen into your home, how many times would this scenario have played? Would it pretty much be on repeat? I know it’s played many, many times on my screen.

We tend to think of children as young and hapless, kind of like Kevin McCallister in Home Alone … you know, that movie from 1990. But what did that hapless young man do when accidentally left all alone at home during Christmas? He managed to take care of himself (he even washed behind his ears and inside his belly button!), go shopping for supplies (including a toothbrush!), do laundry and defend his home against 2 bungling robbers.

Children CAN do things we say they can’t, they really can. Even things like putting up a tent by themselves.

I have a confession to make. I used to sometimes say my girl couldn’t do things because I didn’t want to spend the time to teach her how to do it. Guilty.

Let’s press rewind and replay.

Mum (happy for the offer to help): “Thanks for your offer to help, darling. I’m cutting carrots right now and they’re really hard to cut, but I can teach you how to cut tomatoes. Can you reach the counter? What do you need to do to reach up here, do you think?”

Boy (face lit up in joy): “Erm, use a stool!”

Mum: “You got it! Come up here, then.”

Mum holds a plastic knife. “OK, here’s how you hold a knife. See how it’s pointing this way? OK, watch how I cut. Now you try.”

Boy takes the knife and, holding it the wrong way, tries to cut. Mum, meanwhile, lets him fiddle around for a bit while she scoops the carrots into the pot.

Boy: “Mummy, I can’t!”

Mummy holds his hand with the knife pointing in the right direction and they do a few pieces together. “Think you can do it yourself now?”

Boy (excited): “Yay! I’m cutting tomatoes!”

Do you see what mum did there? She tapped into his natural curiosity and willingness to help. She taught him the right way to do something but let him explore different possible ways so that he could, on his own, come to the conclusion that the way she taught him was best.

She got some help (hey, the tomatoes were cut, in a fashion, weren’t they??) and they had a bonding moment. Also, did you notice when she asked him how he would get up to the counter instead of telling him? Everything is a teachable moment!

OK, I won’t lie, it takes a little more work on your part to allow them to do things you could do in half the time (and half the mess). I want to remind you of a saying I try to live by nowadays, though: “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”

In a nutshell, if you take the time today to teach your child how to do something and hold them up to the highest expectation that they CAN do it, you’ll be setting them up for a lifetime of success.

So, the next time you want to say some of these things, take the chance to turn them into teachable moments instead and have some fun in the process!


“You can’t balance a tray!”


“Thanks for wanting to help me carry the tray. See these handles? You hold them this way. Open up your hands, fingers together. OK, slide them under the handles and your thumbs will go on top of the handle. Now close your fingers over the handle … you’ve trapped the handles! Hold them tight! Don’t let them get away!"


“You can’t use the vacuum!”


"Yay! You’re going to help me vacuum! Let’s see how to do it. See the plug? You have to plug it into these holes, but make sure the switch is up first! (You might need to supervise this part) Now, see the way the sucker part is flat on the floor? Why do you think you need to have it flat on the floor? Yes! So that it can suck up more dirt. Now, which button do you think is on? You got it! Push the sucker slowly around every inch of the floor. Great!"


“You can’t cut with scissors!”


“Let me show you how to hold scissors. You point one finger out and fold the other three in. Stick your thumb up. Put your thumb and pointer finger into the handle holes like this, then close those fingers. Just keep opening and closing your scissor fingers and using the other hand to push the paper forward until it’s done. Yay! You’ve cut with scissors!”


“You can’t light a fire!”


"OK, here’s how to light a bonfire. Let’s use these bigger logs to make a shape outline. What shape do you want your logs to be? Triangle? OK! Great! Now fill up the centre with all the smaller kindling … that’s right, the little twigs. Make a little tent with them … how high can your tent go? OK, now we’re going to light a fire. Now this is how to light a match. See how I hold the match? Right at the bottom so the fire can't get at my fingers. Now scrape the match along the black strip."

Children of this age may not have the strength to get the friction going, but just let them try.

How else can you use the YOU CAN approach? Tell us in the comments. You can … think of multiple instances ... can’t you?


To find out more about a school where children run their classrooms for themselves, come visit Acton Academy KL and watch the magic of letting them figure it out for themselves. Please call or WhatsApp us at +019 335 4507 to set up a visit!

We also invite you to come to an upcoming Exhibition at 9am-12noon, Thursday 10th October, to see Acton in action! Each age group will be showcasing their term’s discoveries and projects.

If you have a little one of preschool age, don’t miss out on our 4-day Preschool Trial on Mon 14th October to Thursday 17th!

Please call to book a space for your child to experience a few days in the life of a little Eagle, as we call them. Meanwhile, do visit us at to see exactly how we inspire each child to find their calling to change the world.


Cressa Chan is the mother of an amazing 8 year old who never fails to astonish her. An educator of 10 years, she truly believes that children can reach heights higher than we allow them to go. Having recently joined the ActonKL family, she’s proud to have watched her girl blossom into a purposeful, resourceful and independent young lady who is truly on the path to finding her calling to change the world.



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