Why why why

The Pediatric Insider

© 2009 Roy Benaroch, MD

Christy posted, “I have a 5-year-old daughter who has developed a bad habit of not responding to questions when asked by an adult. For example, ‘Why did you throw your milk cup on the floor?’ At home, she is either sent to time-out or her room. However, this is now occurring in her kindergarten class. It seems to be a power-struggle or step to independence. What suggestions do you have?”

“Why” questions are tough—especially when little kids are asked them right after they’ve done something wrong. In court, she’d have a constitutionally guaranteed right not to self-incriminate, but I doubt many five-year-olds have the wherewithal to come up with “I plead the fifth.” Instead, kids just look at their shoes.

For a child who doesn’t seem to want to answer adult’s questions, it’s important to step back and make the questions easier to answer, so the child can build confidence through success. A good rule that I apply to many areas of parenting: practice what works, and stop practicing what doesn’t work. If “Why” questions are tough, back off and practice easier ones, and work back up to harder ones.

Easier questions start with “What”—“What is your name?” or “What is your brother’s name?” or “What age are you? (Yes, I know, idiomatically the correct question is “How old are you?”, but How questions are harder than What questions, and I’m trying to make a point here.) Little kids also do pretty well with “Where,” unless the rest of the question is “did you put your shoes?”,  which is apparently a brain teaser that no child can answer. “When” gets a little trickier—“When are you supposed to bring in your share? When is the parent-teacher conference?”

“Why” questions are the toughest off all, and not in the least because parents so often ask them after a child has done something wrong. “Why did you hit your brother?”, or “Why did you cut your own hair?”—these are as difficult as any Zen Koan when you’re on the spot with the teacher or mom giving you a hairy eyeball.

If you’d like to help your child get better at “Why” questions, answer them often yourself, by using the word “because” a lot. “We need to go to the grocery because were out of food,” or “I got mad because that man ran over my foot with his cart. Then I felt better because I realized it wasn’t his fault.” You can also encourage your child to ask why questions—not the annoying, one-word “Why?”, which is just a time-waster, but a properly phrased “Why” question, like “Mommy, why did you talk to that lady so long?” (“Because,” you could say, “she is my friend and I hadn’t seen her in a while. Thank you for waiting. It’s hard to wait because waiting is boring.”) Be sure to ask your child “Why” questions when it’s not a challenging, tense situation—or better yet, when the answer is easy. “Why are you happy on your birthday?” or “Why should we bring an umbrella?”, or maybe something a touch more difficult, like “Why are your shoes getting too small?”

Another tip for kids who seem shy at “Whys” would be to have her help you put on puppet shows, where the puppets talk through answers with each other. Kids learn a lot through pretend games like these, and don’t seem to find them threatening.

Keep in mind that it’s not just the difficulty of the question, it’s the overall setting that sets the anxiety level. If a child feels threatened or upset, even an easy question might not get an answer. And some children are certainly more outgoing and talkative with adults than others. The more shy kids are going to need more gentle practice, and will have more setbacks.

By the way, if your child does something she knows she shouldn’t do—like throwing her milk cup on the floor—I don’t think it’s wise to waste time asking why. You won’t get a useful answer. A better response would be “Don’t throw your milk on the floor,” followed by taking her hand and making her clean it up. A habitual offense might need a time out before clean-up, but more talking won’t help. Tossing cups on the floor is an attention-getting behavior, and having a one-sided conversation about it afterwards will only encourage more milk to land where it’s not supposed to be.

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