You Can: Words that Helped Change My Family

The words "You can" have changed my life in a profound way. For more than three years, the saints dressed up like Early Intervention therapists have taught me a powerful and effective way to direct my children. Simply put, instead of telling the children what to do or say, the therapists have modeled adding the preface "You can..."

Teaching a child who doesn't remember to say hello when a teacher comes in the room would mean saying to him "You can say "hello!"

Redirecting a child who is melting down over a snack: You can say "please have banana?"

A child who is stuck in high chair straps and screaming: You can say "help, Mama!"

A child who is sneaking into someone's purse: You can say "may I look in your bag?"

A child chucking food across the dining room: You can say "All done!"

A child who is playing inappropriately. "You can turn off the water and choose a toy in here."

A child who is trantruming because he can't have what he wants: "You can take a deep breath and talk about what you can have instead."

Credit: quinnanya.

Kids with special needs, and even neuro-typical ones don't know what to say or do much of the time. So they act badly, speak rudely, and panic that they will not be heard or have their needs met. Our team of therapists have consistently, perhaps unknowingly, as a unit, hammered home the concept of telling these clueless tiny people all around me what they can do, since half the time, they literally don't know and make inappropriate choices.

One of my six children, adopted from Ethiopia, is new to English, new to family life, new to our culture, new to making decisions and thinking about anything at all, really, does not know what to do a lot of the time.

While an excellent follower, if the other children are absent, given the opportunity to make a choice on how to act or what to say, this child flounders, freezes. Looks around at the walls, floor, ceiling, lips pressed, in paralysis, desperate for some clue, some hint about what response may be warranted in this situation (or may not think any kind of response or action is warranted at all).

Every day, all the time, I have to get in the trenches. I put on my Speech and Behavioral and Occupational Therapist hats. I pretend this child is like her far younger toddler brothers who have been in Early Intervention programs for a few years now.

I remind her: You can say "thanks for the apple, Mom."

You can take your plate to the sink.

You can read for a few minutes.

You can answer my question after you finish chewing.

You can use a fork.

You can sit up.

You can play with it this way.

You can tell the truth.

You can say sorry.

You can look at my eyes.

You can ask "can I have a hug?"

It's time to get in the car, so you can drop the puzzle and put on shoes.

You can tell your friend "Thank you for coming!"

These and a hundred others pepper my interactions with this child and all the rest of my crew every day.

Can you hear the difference between commanding, "Say sorry to your brother!" And putting it on the child, "You can say sorry." It is subtle and it makes an almost immeasurably positive impact. All of a sudden, the child has options. She can make a choice, a good one, possibly. It turns into a potentially empowering interaction and teaching moment instead of resulting in adult domination and less power for a child who is stuck in a somewhat helpless state.

Of course, the EI angels taught me another trick, to help the little people recognize not only when "they can" but when they do. Today my newbie mentioned earlier struggled for a long stint making a good choice. There were tears, but in the end, the child came through and did the right thing. I hinted, You can say "I did it! I am awesome!"

Smiles and wiped snot and hugs and a quiet mumble, "I did it! I'm awesome!" Teaching a big kid who needs the kind of support toddlers need while gaining social and family skills is an awesomely exhausting parenting task. It takes every ounce of strength to remember that this child, though housed in an enormous big kid body, needs what the babies need: a mother who reminds her of the same stupid things over and over and over and over because two- and three-year-olds need repetition. And if a child doesn't get that mind-numbing repetition, that practice in the toddler years, well, then that said child can be going on eight or twenty eight, but he or she will still need someone to dig deep, find courage and say a whole lot of...

...You can.


Writing about adoption, trauma, trans-racial parenting and my hippe healthy eating at

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