Help Me Sara: Are kids really incapable?

By Sara Dimerman, Psychologist on August 11, 2014


When eight-year-old Marie (not her real name) was assessed as having a learning disability, her parents adjusted their previous expectations. They divided her learning and homework into “chunks” – as advised – so that her focus didn’t wane over too long a period of time and so that she could come back refreshed after each break. Her teacher made accommodations, too, giving one page of math homework instead of two. When her parents struggled to even get her to complete that one page, the teacher sometimes stayed in class over her lunch break the following day to sit with Marie to complete the assignment.

After several lunch recess sessions, Marie’s teacher noticed that Marie was often more capable at completing the work than she made herself out to be. She began to wonder if the one-on-one attention was actually rewarding Marie, and motivating her not to get her work done at home, where her parents had to split their attention between their children.

Marie’s parents also started to suspect if her “can’t do” attitude had become a good excuse for not only spending extra time with her teacher the following day, but also for getting out of doing work so that she could spend more time outside playing with her friends.

Having said all this, not every child who says “I can’t do it” is purposely pulling the wool over your eyes so that she can experience the benefits of playing rather or spending one-on-one time with an adult. I also don’t mean to imply that every child who says that he or she doesn’t ‘get’ it, is not being genuine.

However, sometimes children who feel they can’t do homework or other tasks – whether they have been diagnosed with a learning disability or not – have been known to use their “inability” to get out of doing work because it is hard or appears boring. Sometimes they do it intentionally and sometimes subconsciously.

It can be hard for parents and teachers to determine (at face value), whether a child doesn’t understand what is being asked of him. We wonder: is he truly not getting it or is he pretending not to understand to avoid doing it?

This question may pop into your head not just around school work. For example, you ask your 11-year-old to take his laundry to the laundry room and sort through it, and he insists that he doesn’t get how red and navy clothes are grouped into “dark” clothing along with the black clothes. You may wonder if he is purposely playing dumb so as to get away with doing a sloppy job, or whether he truly cannot wrap his head around the laundry sorting exercise.

When it comes to homework, try sitting with your child. Instead of showing him how to arrive at a solution, ask him to show what he is thinking and doing. Ask that he narrate out loud what is going on in his head as he sets out to navigate through the problem. As you watch and listen, you will likely arrive at a more accurate understanding of whether he is playing at being dumb or whether he is truly stuck and where. You may then begin to understand any potential roadblocks or gaps in understanding what’s in front of him.

The same is true for the laundry scenario. Instead of just assuming that what you’re asking is common sense, be open to the idea that without life’s experience, organizing laundry may be confusing. Again, ask your child to speak out loud as she sorts the laundry so that you can see where her confusion lies.

If you’re not sure if your child genuinely doesn’t understand the task at hand, or have any concerns, you can work with his or her teacher to have an assessment to see if there is any type of learning disability.

Through the ages

Preschool years

When a toddler says “I can’t do it!” he may genuinely not be able to and will require more of your assistance in developing skills to be able to navigate the problem in the future. Other times, if you’ve already seen him master a skill, he may be too tired or not in the mood for doing something, rather than not able. In this case, you might give him a hand or encourage him by reminding him how well he worked at the task before.

School-age years

Is your child really not grasping what is being asked of her (at home and/or school) or has she learned that when she feigns not understanding, others either back off or give her more attention? Understanding her true capabilities may be through formal standardized testing or through observing and listening yourself. When your child displays inadequacy, it’s usually because she’s feeling discouraged. Perhaps she really cannot keep up and so feels different from her peers. Try to encourage your child rather than praise only positive outcomes. Encouragement – such as “I can see how much effort you’re putting into this” – can be given for any effort, improvement or interest and can yield more positive results than praise alone.

Teen years

When your teenager says that he can’t do something that you’re pretty sure he is capable of, he may mean that he doesn’t want to do it. He may also fear failure and therefore, instead of trying and not being as successful as he would like (or as successful as he feels his peers are), he would rather not try at all. If this is a chronic problem and impacting several areas of his life, he may benefit from an open discussion with you or a counsellor who can work on improving his self-esteem.

Sara Dimerman is a psychologist, author and parenting expert in the Greater Toronto Area. Read more at

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2014.

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