“I Can’t”

I am reading Anna Quindlen’s book Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake for book club this month. It’s her memoir thinly disguised as a book of her musings on aging. In it she says “Failure is terrifying to the young.” She precedes this by noting “The older we get the more willing we are to follow [paths we didn’t see coming], to surprise ourselves. After all, all we can do is fail, and failure loses so much of its sting over time.”

She follows this with a chapter on the little stories we tell ourselves. I’m very familiar with these: the “I can’t” stories. Some would call them the “I don’t” stories: I don’t run, I can’t cook, I’m not good at learning languages. Quindlen seems to think that old age is the time to challenge these stories, but I don’t agree. You have to challenge them earlier than that. You have to challenge them as a teen.

“I don’t” stories are self protective. A teen that fears failure might as well say up front that he or she can’t/doesn’t do something so as not to be disappointed. In a world that gives you no points for being basically competent at anything, being good enough just won’t cut it. Teens who are used to having their work compared to others and found wanting may build up huge walls of “I don’ts.”

They serve another purpose, too. We live in an era where everything about our identities is up for grabs, even to the point of gender. This isn’t necessarily freeing for all of us. It was easier in earlier generations, and, I believe, healthier to have some things about ourselves decided already. So “I don’t” or “I can’t” is a form of setting boundaries around who we are. We will do it ourselves if it isn’t already done for us.

Charlotte Mason’s school motto is different. It is “I am, I can, I ought, I will.”

I have started the practice of keeping notebooks with my teens, and have run up against a fairly significant “I can’t.” I can’t draw. I can’t paint. Pretty much everything I attempt looks exactly like it did when I was 8.


I personally have had a long history of challenging my notions of what I can and can’t do. Although I never considered myself athletic, I played basketball with friends in middle school, and even tried out. I wasn’t good enough for the team, but I got good enough that I wasn’t picked last when we played for fun. I learned to sail in my 20’s. I have been known to lead instead of follow. I occasionally sing solo. I’m working on a science curriculum for my daughter despite dropping out of physics in high school. So I accept my drawn work as roughly representational of the object in front of me and leave it at that.

But my kids have inherited my artistic challenges, and they aren’t so willing. Drawing is not something they choose to do for fun, it is not part of their self-identity, and their failure to do it well is discouraging to them. So what does it take?

Here is where Mason’s saying “Habit is ten natures” bears fruit. When “I don’t” is replaced with “I do,” then “I can’t” is replaced with “I can.” If you believe keeping notebooks is important for your homeschool, and there’s a good case for that, then you make time for it and it gets checked off along with readings and narrations. This is the key: if it is important. Once you are convinced that it makes a difference, you don’t give up.

Mason’s other saying, “Never give a child a task they cannot do perfectly” is also reasonable advice, and I’ve had to relearn and reinterpret it again and again for myself. An artist friend told me that I should not expect to paint a landscape or even a whole tree when working in my nature notebook. She said to pick just one leaf or draw just the bark of the tree. When asking a child or teen to draw, have them reproduce a simple drawing or choose an article in the museum they feel confident reproducing.


Finally, don’t compare. Honestly, because I am weak, I could not look often at blogs where the author happens to be a good artist. Once we can accept ourselves as basically competent and be happy with that, we’ll be better able to rejoice in the work of those with real talent. Kids are no different. I had thought to keep a family Book of Centuries so as to have fewer notebooks to keep track of, but Mason had her students solely responsible for their work. Therefore, keeping a family notebook may be difficult. I may have to cover over my work so that my kids can be happy with their own, or work in entirely different centuries.

Here’s to praying that my kids’ future “I don’ts” are not because they ever thought “I can’t.”


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