Child Instruction: The Difference Between ‘Can’ and ‘Might’

4-little-monkeys-jump-on-the-bedWhen instructing Cool Baby not to do something, I need to watch what I say lest I cause a catastrophe of epic proportions.

Let’s say I can walk in a room and see CB jumping on his bed. For a lot of parents, this might not be a big deal. For us, we have nightmares of monkeys falling off and bumping their heads.

So, I would quickly admonish CB:

No jumping on the bed…You can fall off and knock your head!

And by God’s grace, CB will obey. But recently I noticed that I was setting us up for future troubles. It’s semantics, but when I say

You can fall off and knock your head!

a grammar-savvy CB might think to himself, “Oh, I can?! Sweet!” *leap* *mild concussion*

I think it’s going to be a while before CB will take advantage of the dual meanings of the word ‘can’ – “an event that might happen” vs. “I am giving you permission to” – but kids develop faster than you realize.

It’s the same situation with the word ‘may’:

You may knock your head!

Meaning 1: Explaining the possibility that the subject will knock his/her head
Meaning 2: The affirmative response to the question “May I knock my head?”

So, I think my best friend in all of this is the word “might.” It seems to express possibility without the risk of being twisted to grant permission.

You might knock your head!
You might get sick!
You might reveal that Daddy hides cookies under his pillow!

Although Merriam-Webster defines ‘might’ as “used in auxiliary function to express permission, liberty, probability, possibility in the past,” I don’t see how it can viewed in a permission-granting light.

What do you think? May ‘might’ serve better than ‘can’ or ‘may’, or can ‘might’ be twisted to my dismay? [and we have a winner for the most confusing blog question ever!]

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