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Erica Reischer Ph.D.

The Danger of Telling Kids "You Can Do Anything!"

The unexpected downsides of constant encouragement

Many parents tell their kids, “You can do anything!” Of course, we want to encourage our children to pursue their interests and not be limited by society’s view of their capabilities.

At the same time, telling kids that they can do anything is not really truthful and may have unexpected downsides.

It’s not true, for example, that anyone can be a professional basketball player or a fashion model, and not everyone can win a Nobel Prize or be a Supreme Court justice.

We are all limited in particular ways by our genetic endowment and by the statistical realities of competition. In addition, luck and chance play a much larger role in life outcomes, including success, than we generally acknowledge.

In addition, research shows that when we create highly ambitious goals for ourselves, those goals can become harmful—for example, leading to unethical behavior in order to meet those ambitious goals, or leading us to feel like a failure when we don’t achieve them.

Telling kids that they can do anything creates the vision without the road map: It implies they should set a lofty goal but gives no information about how to achieve it.

Better to acknowledge that significant accomplishments will be challenging to achieve, that luck plays a key role in life, and then give kids a road map for how they can advance their goals. I call this road map “the three Ps.”

Instead of just telling kids they can do anything, teach them the three Ps: Practice, Patience, and Perseverance.

1. Practice, because effort coupled with feedback is critical to developing mastery and achieving excellence.

2. Patience, because mastery and meaningful accomplishment happen over a long time frame.

3. Perseverance, because obstacles are likely and setbacks are common in any endeavor.

Emphasize to your kids that success is defined by effort and step-by-step progress, not by comparison with others.

As Thomas Edison supposedly said, after a colleague discovered Edison at his workbench surrounded by the results of thousands of hours’ worth of failed experiments: “I’ve tried everything. [But] I have not failed. I have just found ten thousand ways that won’t work!”

TRY THIS: Imagine your child is struggling with science homework and exclaims in frustration: “I can’t do this!”

Rather than respond, “Yes, you can, let me show you,” you might say something like this instead: “Yes, science can be challenging so it’s normal that you’re struggling with it right now. The more time and effort you spend on it, the easier it will get.”

Then support your child by answering his questions about the work as best you can, without giving him the answers.

Similarly, when you see someone who demonstrates a high level of mastery or excellence, such as a professional sports player or an accomplished musician, you might say something like this: “Wow, she is a fantastic tennis player. I’ll bet she’s spent many years and thousands of hours practicing.”


This post is excerpted from my new book, "WHAT GREAT PARENTS DO: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive" (Penguin Random House, 2016).

"An essential Rules of the Road for would-be parents" (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, New York Times best-selling author of "Flow")

© 2016, Erica Reischer Ph.D. Twitter: @DrEricaR

Tarcher/Penguin Random House
Source: Tarcher/Penguin Random House
About the Author

Erica Reischer, Ph.D., is a psychologist, parent coach, and author. She teaches at University of California Berkeley, UCSF, and other institutions.