“CAN DOs” Work For All Ages

“CAN DOs” Work For All Ages

You don’t have to psychoanalyze your child to offer CAN DOs. Just turn it over to the child with our all-purpose statement, “Hmm. Must be something you can do,” and see what comes back.

If all you get back is a blank stare, offer some CAN DOs of your own by asking yourself, “What else would work?” 

For a young child breaking things out of curiosity, you might try: “You can build a block tower and knock it down,” “You can stomp some bubble wrap,” “You can stomp on this shoe box or tear up this cardboard tube.” You can probably think of many more depending on exactly what you see the child doing.

That’s why SAY WHAT YOU SEE is such a great place to start. When you say, “That came apart,” “You smashed that,” or “That made a loud sound,” the rest is much easier. You can state the boundary, “That’s not for breaking,” and add the CAN DO; or if the child already knows the boundary, go straight to the CAN DO.

CAN DOs arise from neutral observation. You simply try to match the child’s experience with a more acceptable option as in, “What can the child break that’s OK with me?” Certainly, it needs to be something that requires force and produces a visible change, since what the child was initially doing makes these statements, “I was here! I made something happen! I have power over my world!” Seeing the child’s perspective reveals the child’s needs. (The Three Basic Needs are: experience, connection, power.) In this case, the primary need appears to be power, so your CAN DO has to meet that same need to work.

By putting yourself in the child’s place you can almost feel the needs. The trick is often in giving yourself permission to feel them. The more you allow yourself to step into the child’s experience and feel those childhood feelings, the better you will be at figuring out the “need.” If the CAN DO works, you got it; if it doesn’t, try again, or better yet, turn it over to the child with the empowering phrase, “Must be something you can do!”

When kids learn the CAN DO pattern, they come up with their own CAN DOs.

When my niece was two, her mother had been bitten by a brown recluse spider and had gotten extremely sick, so the child was very afraid of spiders. Having learned the CAN DO pattern, when she saw a spider on the sidewalk she didn’t scream to crush it. Instead, she said, “Spider, you no bite my mommy. You can eat the grass!” By the age of five, she was still using CAN DOs naturally. When she saw me fussing at her dog who was digging in my garden, she came up and said, “Where can she dig?”

From these real-life examples, it’s not too hard to imagine an elementary school child who wants to break something coming up with a CAN DO like, “I could build a balsa wood tower and crush it with my bare hands!” Just the thought of it might do the trick. If not, what a great project for a kid who feels he always has to be careful — you don’t need to be careful with something you are going to break! Besides all the other great STRENGTHS you will see along the way as he constructs the tower, in the end when he crushes it and you see the satisfaction on his face, you can add the STRENGTH, “You found a healthy way to get your strong feelings out.”

CAN DOs apply to teens as well.

I remember one mother’s CAN DO for her 16-year-old son who had recently gotten his license. She had approved his plans for driving his date to a neighborhood restaurant and then on to a school dance, but at the last minute, he and his date were invited to join a group of friends at a different restaurant farther away. The problem was that it required him to drive on the interstate. He was sure he was ready, but Mom was not. She offered this CAN DO instead, “Dinner with friends sounds great. Must be some way you can eat with them without driving on the interstate. Hmmm… You can ask them to join you at the local restaurant, or I can drive you to the other one.” Her son and his date rode in the back seat to join their friends at the restaurant on the interstate. Mom waited in the car reading a book, drove them home, and gave them the car to go on to the dance.

CAN DO opportunities are endless and even better when your children come up with them themselves. One way to encourage them to do that if they seem stuck is to offer your suggestions and then ask what they think. Since your goal is simply to model CAN DOs in order to get your child started, when the child offers one, even if it is unusual, as long as it fits within your boundary, encourage the child to give it a try.

Then add a STRENGTH like, “You figured that out!” or “That’s certainly creative!” The more your child hears STRENGTHs from you, the sooner they will see themselves as a creative problem-solver, and you can turn all the CAN DOs over to them.  

What CAN DOs have you offered? What CAN DOs have your kids come up with for themselves?


  1. aceiatx |

    Hi, I am a working mom with a 3 yr old that is kept by my very capable sister during the work day. My well rested sister is able to give him quality one on one attention on weekdays (she has a wellspring of patience with him). They play and learn all day with a lot of toys, both fun and educational. He even has a big playscape to play on, animals to play with and a nature garden with pond to explore. He does not get much playtime with other children except on the weekends when we have playdates and other activities scheduled to give him social contact with children his own age. When he is home, he wants my attention constantly, and I try very hard to give it to him, but sometimes I am tired and I just want to put my feet up or finish my dinner – I don’t want him to go away or leave me alone, but I would like to be able to sit and eat for 10 min without hearing the whine of “Mommy come play!”. My son is not a great eater so he usually eats and finishes in 5 min or less. My wonderful husband does his best to help by cooking dinner for us and offering to play with my son so I can eat – this sometimes works but many times, Daddy is not a good enough substitute for Mommy. How can I provide the support and attention he needs from me and help him to be more independent at the same time? I know he craves Mommy Time and I try very hard to give it to him with my full attention. During this time I sit on the floor with him and watch him play or participate as he allows. I try to hug and cuddle him as much as he will let me. He flits from toy to toy, activity to activity, changing rooms often and demanding I follow. My gut is telling me that all this need and activity is a signal that something is not fulfilling for him and I can’t seem to figure out what it is. We try to follow the Attachment Parenting method, so we often discuss how mommy needs a few minutes and then she will be able to play again, or we try to set a timer. He does not tantrum and is generally very well behaved, but he will continue to pester me or ask if it is time yet. If we try to watch a TV show as a family and he gets bored, he will begin to act out with his toys until he gets our full attention back. Mostly we have stopped watching the TV because we don’t want him to feel like he is in competition with it for our attention.

    Is there anything else we can do?


  2. Sandy |

    aceiatx, Your commitment to connection with your child is clear. “How can I provide the support and attention he needs from me and help him to be more independent at the same time?” is a great question that many parents face. The specific detail you provided gives us lots to work with, so I answered you in a blog entry: When Needs Appear to Conflict.

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