The Gospel Coalition by Jen Wilkin
Don’t wait for answers. Just take your chances. Don’t ask me why. — Billy Joel
Small children entrust their parents with all manner of questions. For the most part, we parents consider it a privilege to supply answers, but then there are days the “why’s” won’t stop. As much as we want to help our kids learn and grow, incessant “why’s” can wear on even the most enthusiastic parent, causing us to ask one of our own: Why is this tiny person pushing me to the brink of sanity with endless questions?
It’s important for parents to discern the underlying reason a small child asks “why” if we’re to give a loving and appropriate response. In our experience with our own kids, Jeff and I distinguished three types of “Why’s” in the small child’s vocabulary: the Curious Why, the Social Why, and the Defiant Why. Failure to distinguish between them is a surefire invitation for parental insanity to ensue. Identifying them correctly, however, helps us know how and when to respond, ensuring that we neither shut down honest questions nor entertain unproductive ones.
1. The Curious Why
The most straightforward (and therefore pleasant) of the category, the Curious Why is offered for the sole purpose of achieving better understanding. It’s the mainstay of the most enjoyable conversations of the parent-child relationship. Why do puppies bark? Why is it cold in the winter? Why are you such a great mommy, Mommy? They ask, you respond, they beam appreciatively, the day moves along. These Curious Why moments are to be savored and enjoyed—honest questions posed for the simple joy of learning.
How to respond: Because the Curious Why is a rite of childhood, it deserves to be answered without frustration or distraction, in as helpful a manner as possible. Children may not always time their Curious Why’s conveniently, but as far as is reasonably possible, we should stop what we’re doing, make eye contact, and respond. By doing so, we set the pattern for future, more complex Curious Why’s to be asked: “Why is sex only for marriage?” “Why do we believe Christianity is the only true religion?” We establish ourselves as a safe, trustworthy, and loving place to bring questions of all kinds.
2. The Social Why
A close relative of the Curious Why, the Social Why may have a partial objective of gaining insight into a topic, but its primary objective is to engage you in dialogue. It’s often asked about subjects that are self-explanatory, previously explained, or just plain boring. It is, in fact, often spoken out of boredom. It’s been a while since Mommy has given me her full attention, the small child thinks. Perhaps I will draw her into endless conversation by repeating “Why?’’ at the end of every sentence she utters. So he asks, “Mommy, why is my apple juice yellow?” She responds, “Because it’s made from the insides of apples. That’s what color they are on the inside.” He rejoins, “But why are apples yellow on the inside?” and we’re off to the races. Thirty minutes later, the conversation continues along similar channels, and Mom is considering throwing herself in timeout.
How to respond: An exchange in which one person asks only questions and the other supplies only answers is less of a conversation and more of an interrogation. (More on that to come.) The small child knows the Social Why will initiate and sustain interaction, but he doesn’t know how to have a two-way conversation. This is your opportunity to help him learn. Instead of returning an answer, return a question of your own. Having explained why apple juice is yellow, respond to the follow-up “Why are apples yellow?” with “That’s a good question. Why do you think they are?” Now you have a shared discussion in which both parties bear the burden of the “why.” You’ve invited dialogue, the secret sauce to all good parenting. And you can expect one of two outcomes: Either your child will weary of the conversation once responsible to carry half of it, or he will warm to the conversation and contribute colorful theories of his own. Either way, you both win.
But let’s be frank: Though it’s charming and even a little flattering that a small child wants to draw us into dialogue, sometimes we just need the talking to stop. After entertaining the Social Why respectfully for a reasonable amount of time, you’re within your parental rights to say kindly: “I enjoy talking to you so much, but Mommy needs a timeout from questions for a little bit.” After establishing this healthy boundary, you’re not obligated to answer any more questions until your will to live returns.
3. The Defiant Why
At last, we come to the one we all dread. The Defiant Why, in its simplest form, is an objection to a parental command or a sign of displeasure over a boundary. Its intent is to stall or derail an outcome by miring you in endless explanations.
In its multi-syllabic form (WHHHHHHHHYYYYYYYYYYYYYEEEEEEEE????) it’s easily identifiable, but when employed proficiently by a small child, the Defiant Why can be hard to spot, often posing as the Curious Why. Parents can be drawn in to the charade out of a desire to avoid conflict, or out of a misplaced desire to reason thoroughly with a child willfully misbehaving. You don’t owe a lengthy, multi-layered explanation to a defiant or disobedient child. When you offer one, you’ve again traded dialogue for interrogation/response. Parents suddenly find themselves not in control, but on trial. Feeling trapped by the ongoing interrogation, parents tend either to lecture or to blurt out something along the lines of “Because I said so!”
The problem with both responses is they keep responsibility for the outcome of the misbehavior on the parent instead of the child. The parent mistakenly thinks it’s her job to either convince or coerce the child to obey.
How to respond: A better outcome is to help the child learn to take responsibility. Instead of responding with a statement, respond with a question.
Mom: “Jimmy, it’s time to go home. Please put on your shoes.”
Mom: “I’ve told you why. What did I say?”
(Jimmy stares sullenly)
“Do you need to sit in timeout until you can answer me?”
Mom: “Why do you need to put your shoes on?”
Jimmy: “Because it’s time to go.”
Mom (in a genuinely encouraging tone): “That’s right! Now please do what I’ve asked.”
Jimmy’s defiance has been exposed, and his knowledge of the right choice has been exposed too. You’ve even verbally rewarded him for his memory skills. He’s now accountable to do what he’s been asked. The Defiant Why wants to sidetrack a parent into thinking obedience has been slow because of lack of clarity. When we respond to the Defiant Why with an explanation, we’re in effect answering a fool according to his folly (Prov. 26:4). We become complicit in our child’s foolish desire to delay obeying. By continuing to offer responses, we lend credibility to his complaint.
But what about that ultimate trump card, “Because I said so”? The motive behind this most famous of parental sayings is actually good: For the well-being of the child, the conversation is over and obedience needs to commence. But there’s a better way to accomplish the same outcome. Rather than an ultimatum centered on the parent, shift to a diagnosis centered on the child. Name the Defiant Why for what it is: arguing.
Mom: “That’s arguing. You need to obey. If you argue you will go to time out, okay?”
If, instead of an obedient “Yes, ma’am” or “Okay, Mom” another “why” is forthcoming, Jimmy goes to timeout until he can respond positively and do what was asked. By responding with a diagnosis instead of an ultimatum, parents call the child to account for the motive behind the “Why” and graciously give a way out of the deadlock by halting the back-and-forth.
Most Important Why
Listening closely to the context and tone of our children’s “why’s” can help us avoid the twin errors of hastily shutting down an earnest question or blindly entertaining a defiant one. The highly relational parent may tend to assume the best motive behind every “why,” while the highly rules-driven parent may tend to assume the worst. Relational parents will be tempted to answer all questions; rules-focused parents will be tempted to answer none. So perhaps the first and most important “why” to diagnose is this: “Why do I typically respond the way I do to my child’s questions?” Recognizing whether we’re more prone to let “why’s” lead to interrogations or to ultimatums can help us respond lovingly and appropriately.
By laboring to discern the kind of “why” our small child is asking, we help them become both conversational and compliant—not just a child we want to inform, but one we actually enjoy interacting with. By working to discern the “why” behind our typical responses, we learn to parent from a place of self-awareness—with an eye toward long-term relationship. Our own heavenly Parent doesn’t always answer our “why’s” in ways we find satisfying from our limited perspective. But we rest in the “who” of God’s character when the “why” eludes us. May we be Moms and Dads whose kids trust the “who” of our character as we shepherd them through the wonderful, wearying, wisdom-shaping “why’s” of the early years.