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Why?: the Dos and Don’ts

I was happy to see so many familiar faces at the Parent Education Series presentation featuring Chick Moorman. He provided so many useful ideas for us to use at preschool and with our own children. I’d like to share with you an article of Chick’s highlighting some of the topics he covered and elaborating on a few others. Enjoy! -Claire
Responding to WHY: The Do’s and Don’ts
By Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller

“Why can’t I have another cookie?”
“Why do I have to go to bed?”
“Why can’t Roberto come over?”

Toddlers learn the “why” question early and repeat it often. Teenagers use it regularly. No matter what ages your children are, you will hear this question frequently.

If you have children, you have heard WHY used in a variety of situations covering a plethora of circumstances. Sometimes it is a stalling tactic. Other times it is a way to get attention. It can be used as a protest. More than occasionally it is used to activate a power struggle. Still other times children are honestly looking to gather information. They want an answer.

So what is a parent to do? What is an emotionally healthy way to respond when your child asks, “Why?” Following are eleven do’s and don’ts to help you navigate the often rough waters of responding to a persistent WHY.

Do answer their question. The human brain searches for answers. It wants to know why. Ask, “Would you really like to hear some answers?” If they say yes, tell them the reasons why staying up past their routine bedtime is not healthy. Remind them of the negative outcomes that occurred (grouchiness and irritability) when they stayed up later on their birthday. Let them know that the last time Roberto came over the mess was not cleaned up and several arguments ensued.

If you do give a reason, wrap it in healthy limits. Bedtimes, eating snacks, TV time, computer access, car keys, and other issues are best framed in healthy limits. A 7:30 bedtime is not the rule. It is a healthy limit. One hour of screen time is not the rule. It, too, is a healthy limit. Children love to break rules and argue about them. They are more likely to accept healthy limits and the reasons for them.

If your child has a history of arguing after you give a reason, ask, “Do you want to know the reason so you will know the reason, or do you want to know the reason so you can argue with me?” If they say they only want to know the reason and accept the reason as the reason, fine. If they hear the reason and begin to argue with you, say, “You are using the reason to argue. That doesn’t work with me and encourages me to be less forthcoming with reasons in the future because I’m less likely to trust your words. What works here is to hear the reason and realize this one is a parental decision.”

Do grant in fantasy what you won’t grant in reality. When your toddler asks why he can’t stay up longer, grant his wish in fantasy. Say, “You wish you could stay up a lot later. Oh, that would be fun.” (Granting the wish in fantasy.) “When you are a few years older, that might happen. And right now seven-thirty is bedtime.” ( Reality) When your teen says, “Everyone else gets to go. Why can’t I?” say, “Going to the concert and staying out until past midnight sounds like a lot of fun. You wish you could do everything all your friends do without any limits. Wouldn’t that be nice?” (Grants the wish in fantasy.) “There will come a day. This weekend is not that time yet.” (Reality)

Do not say, “Because I said so, that’s why.” We have a name for that type of response. It’s called being a bully. It’s a big me/little you stance. It tells your children, “I have power and you don’t. I’m big and you’re not.”

Do be the adult in the room. Whether responding to a teen or a toddler, it is imperative that you act and speak like a mature adult. That means using a serious and moderate tone and volume. Park anger and loud or intimidating responses in a vacant field. Leave them there. Adult responses are what is required now.

Do respond to your children’s feelings rather than their words. When your teen yells, “You’re not fair. Why can’t Alysha come over?” respond to the feeling behind the words. Say, “You must really be angry to sound so loud.” When your toddler says, “I don’t want to go. Why do I have to?” let your words speak to the feeling behind his words. “You’re feeling angry about our trip to Grandpa’s.”

If you hear yourself saying, “This is the last time I’m going to tell you the reason,” you have already given the reason too many times. When you catch yourself saying that, let it be the last time. Stick to it.

Do not cave. If you cave, you have just informed your child, “If you ask me why a gazillion times, I might change my mind.” If this occurs, your child is not the problem. You are.
Do not get drawn into a debate contest. Your children are probably smarter than you are. They will win. Often they win by outlasting you.

When you say, “OK, just this one time,” pat your child on the back. She just won.
Reasoning doesn’t work. “You’ll be too full for dinner.” “You’ll be too tired in the morning.” “You’ll get behind in your schoolwork.” “You’ll break it the first day.” You know the response your child will make. You’ve heard it many times before. Haven’t we all? “No, I won’t.”

Maybe you think you can convince your child to see it your way. Maybe you believe he or she will come around to believing you’re right. Maybe your incredible gift of logic will cut down on complaints, arguing, and a barrage of excuses. Probably not.

If you’re wondering why, reread the material above.

Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller are the authors of The Abracadabra Effect: The 13 Verbally Transmitted Diseases and How to Cure Them. They are two of the world’s foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. They publish free Parent and Educator Newsletters. To subscribe to the newsletters or obtain information about how they can help you or your group meet your parenting needs, visit their websites today: www.thomashaller.com or www.chickmoorman.com.