‘Can’ versus ‘will’

Photo: Jon Tyson, Unsplash

“Can” and “will.” Short words that seem interchangeable. But, as even a young child can tell you, they are wildly different. Using one over the other changes an entire conversation. 

Early in their elementary school years, kids know the difference. Here’s a sample conversation with my son. 

Me: “Can you go walk the dog?” 

Him: “Can I? Yes. Will I? . . .” His voice rises with the question mark and then fades off with the clearly intended “no” unspoken.  

While this response walks the border line of talking back, he makes a valid point. Is this a direct command? What are his real options? 

I’m tempted to dismiss his follow-up question as sassy because, given the context, of course I’m telling him to do it. That’s a command, my dear, and you know it. 

In honesty, though, it is a manipulative command. I can pretend I’m innocently mixing up the two similar words, but really I’m trying to get him to “choose” to do it. If I use “can,” I’m not forcing him. 

I suspect my grandparents weren’t this way, but I find that parents avoid direct commands in general. Multiple times I remember my daughters responding to “Will you set the table?” with “No.” 

Then they’d look at me with raised eyebrows. They got me. Now I had to say, “Sorry, that wasn’t a question. Please, set the table now.” 

Disrespectful? Or holding up a mirror to my manipulation?  

Actually, I feel completely fine forcing my children to do chores or other worthy tasks. 

I suspect every parent feels this way, which makes it even more essential to understand: Why do we default to using indirect language? 

I think we shy away from phrasing our demands directly because we’ve decided as a culture that we shouldn’t make demands at all. It feels selfish, needy, bossy, dictatorial, controlling. To assuage the guilt of being these negative things, we spin the demand as the other person’s choice. 

This tactic is especially toxic between child and parent because children depend on pleasing adults for their survival. 

When a parent says, “Can you practice violin now?” the child knows the parent really wants them to practice ­violin. The child does not want to practice yet knows they will disappoint the parent if they don’t. The child doesn’t have a choice and yet has to “choose” yes. 

Talk about mind games. 

Adults do this to each other, too. 

“Can you go with me to the company Christmas party?” Sometimes this is a perfectly legitimate question about scheduling. Or possibly the subtext is, “I know you would rather stick toothpicks in your eyeballs than go to the company Christmas party, so I don’t want to directly ask you, but I really want you to come. So, can you?” 

Talk about mind games. 

Other than reinforcing the notion that it is bad to state our needs directly, our indirect requests deny others the chance to lovingly sacrifice themselves for us. People want to help each other; we want to be the good Samaritan. 

If my husband says, “I know you don’t love the beach, but I’d really like to go. Would you be willing to suck it up and go this year?” I have the opportunity to be a loving, longsuffering wife who graciously goes to the beach with her family. This is quite different from a backhanded roundabout request to which I really don’t say yes at all — and still find myself grumpy under a canopy with sand all over my book. 

Clear communication prevents the misunderstanding that comes from subconscious manipulation. Much of this is about honesty. What is the truth lurking in the shadows? 

Consider the parent asking the child to practice violin. Is the parent trying to find an activity the child will want to do? Or is this something the parent has committed to because they believe learning violin will enhance their child’s life?

If the first is true, then the child has a choice. If practicing the violin isn’t fun, don’t do it. 

But if the second is true, then, like wearing a seat belt or eating vegetables, there is no “can you?” or “will you?” Only “please do.”

It is hard to be truly honest with others. It is many times more difficult to be honest with ourselves. 

Jesus said truth leads to freedom. Discerning our true motives and needs creates relationships built on trust.  

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