The four letter word my kids probably hear too much

What is one of the worst four-letter words we as parents can say to our kids?

I'm sure you've come up with several, but my guess is that most of those are easy enough to teach as taboo.

"No kid, you shouldn't say ____. It's a bad word that only grown ups can say." And yes, they'll still say in the company of other misguided friends but they'll figure out soon enough that it's not socially acceptable to use it in the company of adults.

But there's one word that we're probably all guilty of using too much. And it's not even socially taboo. Yet it can truly shape a kid's life.

The word is "can't" and I know I'm guilty of using it too much.

"You can't climb the stairs without holding my hand."

"You can't go outside today, it's too ____ (hot/cold/wet/dry/far away from TV/etc.)"

"You can't ____ (button your own shirt/put on your own shoes/etc.) and we're in a hurry. Here, just let me do it."

"You can't go in the woods by yourself because ____ (you'll get poison ivy, kidnapped, stuck in quicksand, eaten by something...)."

And they say kids have wild imaginations. You want imagination? Ask any parent to come up with all the bad things they imagine could possibly happen to their kid on any given day.

We throw out "can'ts" like post-dinner candy bribes (what, just me?) Pretty soon, Kid starts internalizing the concept of Can't. He starts to believe it. She stops trying new things. He probably can't do it anyway. Better to just stay in and play on the computer. It's after that way.

Get my point?

I bring this up because the phrases above are spoken in my house often. But recently, I came to the realization that we're probably using that four letter word way too much. Here's what sparked my epiphany:

At the TEDxDavenport event a while back, I got to see a presentation by a guy named Matt. He’s a fellow Iowan and one of those guys that when he gets focused on something, he will do whatever it takes to achieve it, no matter how many people tell him he can’t. And he’s been told a lot that he can’t do things.

When Matt was born, his birth parents gave him up and he ended up in an orphanage. He was 13 months old when he was finally adopted. His adoptive parents vowed to treat him no differently and to give him every opportunity as their other children and they held to their word. "Can't" seemed to be a four letter word in their family.

When Matt was 10 he decided he would be the next Michael Jordan. Despite the fact he was short and white, his parents – god bless them – bought him a ball and hoop.

He practiced endlessly but was told by many that he simply would never be a basketball player. And they were right. He never did become a basketball player.

But that did not stifle his singular focus to become the best in the world at something. Instead of taking the basketball failure to heart, he decided to pivot to a new dream. Care to guess what it was? Baseball? No. Soccer? Nope. You’ll never get it, stop trying.


Seriously, I want to meet this guy’s parents. They deserve an award, because what did they do when they heard about this new dream? Put him on a bull of course!

Luckily for everyone involved, this interest was short lived, albeit more painful. But did Matt stop there? Nope. Nobody was going to tell this guy he couldn't be the best in the world. "Can't" simply wasn't an internalized concept for him.

About then is when Matt reached the age where he could get his drivers license. And what does every ambitious teen want to do with their life the moment they reach driving age?

"If you ain't first, you're last!" Image credit
Become the next great NASCAR driver of course!

Unfortunately, taking your driving test as if you were Ricky Bobby (pre-crash) is not a good way to earn your license. And sure enough, despite technically passing the course, the instructor told him he can't have his license.


He did eventually get his license some time later but it became evident that NASCAR wasn’t in his future.

Skip ahead to the economic recession of 2008. Matt finds himself unemployed and struggling to provide for his family. So he decides to buy a bow so he can harvest deer and put food on the table.

“Oh no, you can’t do that.” His non-hunting buddies said. “That’s not even a thing.”

But he did. And it worked. He shot a deer and put food on the table for his family. And he found he really liked this archery thing.

Can you guess where this is going?

Yes, Matt decided he wanted to be the best archer in the world. So he practiced. And practiced. And got better. He attended some competitions. He didn’t win, but he didn’t come in last either. So that was something.

Pretty soon, he had a sponsor offer from a bow manufacturer. He was on his way. Maybe.

But still, there were those that kept naysaying. “Dude, you realize they’re only using you as a marketing pawn, right? It’s certainly not because you’re good.”


But Matt would not be deterred. And in 2012, he found himself in London. Do you remember what happened in London in 2012? That’s right. The Olympics. At which he won a silver medal.

Take your "can't" and shove it, naysayers.

Inspirational, isn't it? That's the kind of determination and emotional fortitude I want to instill in my kids for sure.

But wait, it gets better. See, there’s some information about Matt Stutzman that I’ve left out. Matt is one-in-a-million. Literally.

Not only is he an Olympic medalist, he also holds the world record for the most accurate archery shot.

Impressive, yes. But that’s not what I mean by "one-in-a-million".

Remember how I told you he was given up by his birth parents? That’s because he was born with no arms due to a birth defect that affects about one in a million children.

Let me reiterate this…the man that holds the world record for the most accurate archery shot and the silver medalist in archery at the London Paralympics HAS NO ARMS!
Photo credit: Iowa Source
Photo credit: Inside Archery

Matt’s whole life was one big “You can’t…” from just about everyone – except of course his parents. Remember the bullriding thing? Seriously, parents of the freaking millennium right there…

And I’m worried about my kid catching cold from playing outside in the rain (which she regularly asks to do).

As parents, we can't help but be protective. We want to keep our kids from doing things that might result in pain or failure. But the reality is that some bumps and bruises (or, let's face it, even some broken bones) are better teachers than we could ever be. And telling our kids too often that they can't do things I fear is a good way to keep them from trying.

The only way for them to find out how great they can be is to try doing the things that they can possibly be great at. As parents, maybe we should step back and give them some room to test their wings.

Or their feet. 
Watch Matt "The Armless Archer" Stutzman's TEDx talk here.

I'm the first to admit that I have no idea what I'm doing as a parent but I'm trying to figure it out as I go. If you want to join in on this wonderful, scary, crazy, fun journey, subscribe here. And be sure to join the conversation by leaving a comment.