[Week 31 of 52 Weeks to a Better Relationship With Your Child]
How to prepare yourself for the question why
Have you heard the joke about young boy who asked where he came from? His mother hadn’t expected that question quite so young, but she took a deep breath and explained human reproduction. Her small son listened patiently, but at the end asked, “But where am I from? Joey is from Georgia.”
When a child asks a why or how type question, a parent should also ask, “Why?” That is, “Why is the child asking the question?” The answer probably fits into one of these categories:
- delaying tactics
It is to a child’s and a parent’s benefit if a parent guides a child in how and when the question “why?” is asked. Asking “why?” is basic to the learning process, but it can also be wielded manipulatively.
Asking “why?” is like using a hammer. If it is done the right way at the right time, the results are very helpful. Things come together. If “why?” is swung around carelessly or aimed at things that don’t need it, there will be pain and destruction.
When we help our children learn how and when to ask “why?” we help them to work on relationships and communication, as well as responsibility.
Trust and authority
There are two key components to delaying an answer to a child. One is the child knowing he can trust the parent. The other is appropriate parental authority.
I know that many libertarians despise the concept of any authority. While I agree whole-heartedly that no adult should claim authority over another adult, parenting is different. As I have said before, if parents are to be held responsible for the care of their children (which most people agree is proper and necessary), then there has to be a measure of authority given them. Otherwise it is like tying someone’s hands and feet and telling them to swim.
It might help to differentiate between attitudes in authority. To have authority does not mean it is good or okay to be capricious or constantly selfish. Healthy parental authority is used for the good of the child, the good of the parent-child relationship, and the good of whole family.
Much is in the timing
Every child’s first why question is probably an honest one. Parents are delighted by the child’s lively mind and are happy to interrupt the proceedings in order to pass on knowledge.
Sooner or later a couple of things are likely to happen. One, the child ends up asking a question at a bad time. Two, the child notices that parents tend to drop everything to answer questions, so he begins to use the why question in a manipulative way.
If a parent is regularly engaging with the child, answering questions and discussing things, there is no reason to feel guilty for sometimes delaying an answer to a legitimate question. For one thing, many questions have no bearing on what is actually happening or is going to happen. They are just inquisitive.
When and how to say “because I said so.”
When my children were growing up, I don’t think I used the exact words “because I said so.” I think that phrasing tends to give the wrong impression. But I also think it has more to do with tone and overall relationship.
It can be quite reasonable to firmly say something to the effect that you are not going to take time for giving details or trying to persuade your child at the moment. The child should develop an understanding that he does not get to hold you hostage to proving your parenting decisions. It won’t take long before a more succinct, “not now” sort of answer does the job.
Once and a while, you may even go so far as to say (depending on the age and maturity of the child) that he will soon enough be making such decisions on his own. House rules happen everywhere and a child needs to learn to have a good attitude about them. Such rules are the prerogative of those with management responsibilities.
The ideal is that none of this will be done in a contentious way, especially on the part of the parent. The parent needs to set the tone of the discussion to one that is likely to end with understanding and camaraderie. He needs to encourage the child toward self-control.
Answering with a question
Sometimes what a child needs is a prompt to think for himself. Why does he want to know? Does he already have any ideas of answers? Where might he look for answers?
Sometimes a child asks why as a matter of habit. Sometimes he is trying to stump the parent or find some question that feels it brings conclusion. Getting a child to be aware of his own motives and tendencies will help him ask better questions.
When a question is not really a question
You can tell pretty easily if a child is actually considering your answers or just waiting to fire the next question at you. If he is trying to delay something from happening or trying to argue about a decision, he is not really asking why so much as saying he disagrees. In these cases, I start by referring you back to the concept of parental authority.
These times can also be opportunities to teach your child the difference between discussion and argument. The way everyday language is used, a discussion is an attempt to gain understanding, but an argument is a battle of superiority. He can begin to learn that relationships are built on good discussions, but often destroyed by arguments.
Questions you can’t answer
Not knowing an answer definitively does not need to demean you in your child’s eyes. What matters is how you respond to questions you can’t answer. Here are good things about such questions:
- You learn to research things together, teaching him good ways to do this.
- You help him understand that no one knows everything.
- You help him evaluate whether certain questions are actually worth his time.
Communicate your limits of understanding without belittling yourself. There is no need to do that. Plus, it sets a bad example for your child in his attitudes toward himself.
When your child knows he is a priority
If you develop good family priorities, leave margin in your schedule, and have the general habit of discussing things with your child, your child knows he is a priority. You do not need to feel guilty about not answering every question on-the-spot. In fact, not taking a lot of time for answering right away is sometimes a good example of good time management and priorities in general.
Sometimes why questions are an indication that you can and should include your child in more of your activities. Your willingness to take more time to do your task, explain it, and possibly let him help with parts shows that he is important. Along the way, you will find you get better at answering why and have more fun doing it.