Don’t Tell Them What They Can’t Do…

As #2 scrambled out onto the boulder field after #1 and his friend, I caught myself before warning her against trying to keep up with or even go as far as the boys. Like most boys, they raced up the boulder field for the far end a third of a mile away.[1]

The boulder field stretches away from us.

The boulder field stretches away from us.

#2 is incredibly robust for a six-year-old, but I had a hunch climbing over boulders for more than half a mile would exceed even her abilities, especially as she hoped not just to catch but to pass #1 and his friend, who not only are older but also had a head start. But rather than place doubts into #2’s head about what is and isn’t possible, I simply followed along to be there if she needed some help.

We didn’t catch #1 and his friend before they reached the far end, but we didn’t fall far behind. When the four of us turned around, the return trip suddenly looked much longer. But #2 charged back down the boulder field. About halfway back she took a short breather and then was back at it. Although #2 was tiring—as evidenced by her occasional missteps and her asking how much further to go—she acquiesced only to accept a steadying hand now and to stop briefly “to catch [her] breath” but refused to accept a piggyback ride.

When we arrived back where we started, #2 was tired but in much better shape than I had anticipated and had shown my “hunch” to be wrong. If I had dissuaded #2 from tackling that boulder field, I would have projected my fears onto her and unfairly limited her potential. There’s a lesson here that extends beyond boulder fields:

Don’t tell them what they can’t do, which imposes your own fears and limitations on them. Instead, accompany them, encourage them, and lend a steadying hand (if they ask for one) as they disregard your fears and do what they can.

Both #2 and I learned something on the boulder field. She learned that she can defeat a boulder field. I learned to keep my mouth shut and try to keep up.


  1. And like most boys, they ended up with the requisite scrapes, scratches, and bruises. Strewn up the boulder field were parents who had tried in vain to stop their progeny from racing up the field only to run out of energy and stamina part way. Sitting on boulders, they shouted warnings—“Be careful!” or “Don’t fall!” or “Don’t get hurt!”—at the backs of their children who paid them no heed as they scrambled off into the bouldery distance.  ↩

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