The Difference Between Won’t and Can’t

By: Dr. Kimberly Harrison

“No!” Carlos threw his pencil and stomped down the hall, refusing to return to finish his homework. First, Dad started pleading with promises of a favorite TV show if Carlos would just finish, then Mom threatened no iPad time if he didn’t start working “right now!”


The more his parents insisted, the angrier Carlos became, throwing his toys around his bedroom, shouting, and eventually crying himself to sleep. No punishment seemed to impact his desire to get away from that homework. His parents were exhausted and confused. Why was second grade homework such a problem? After all, he just had to read a few pages in a book and write 3 sentences. Other nights were the same. It didn’t matter what the subject was, Carlos refused, often holding the household hostage with his outbursts. Sometimes, one tantrum would resolve just in time for another to begin – he didn’t want to play with his brother, or go swimming, or go to his baseball game – sometimes, it seemed, he just wanted to be defiant. He’d always been a little emotional, but never like this. What were they doing wrong, his parents wondered, why couldn’t they make their child behave? It was frustrating, embarrassing, and draining. It was even starting to impact their marriage, each one blaming the other for making it worse.