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Why?

February 15, 2013
Small girl asking why

Question:

When I tell my 4-year-old son to do something, his first response is always, “Why?”

How should I deal with this issue?

Answer:

When a child is told to do something that he doesn’t want to do, he will often ask, “Why?” In most cases the question is not prompted by a spirit of cooperative inquiry but by a spirit of independence and maybe even rebellion. The question is thrown at the parent as a challenge to his or her authority. A wise parent will know that the character of the child is better served if the question is left unanswered. The child should trust the wisdom and good intentions of his parents. The child who is in fellowship with his parents doesn’t demand a seat on the decision-making committee; his respect leads him to obey without challenging the wisdom of the authority.

Some children get in a habit of asking why. It is their first response to any command, popping out even when given a command to do something they would like to do. Maybe they picked up the “why” habit from Mama challenging Daddy. You might want to change your style, now that you are raising children.

You can come to discern your child’s heart by telling him to do something that he loves. If you say, “Let’s go play ball,” is his first response, “Why?” or is it, “Yeah!” If it is why, then you know it is just an ingrained habit that you need to help him break. Simply explain the problem and tell him that every “Why?” will result in him doing five jumping jacks or something of that nature. The consequences are jovial but are something that helps him remember.

When he says, “Why?” it sounds as if he is saying, “I don’t want to.”

If his whys are only thrown out when he is told to do something he doesn’t want to do, then explain to him that you don’t want him challenging you when you give an order, and that when he says, “Why?” it sounds as if he is saying, “I don’t want to.” Then make it clear that negative consequences will ensue when he challenges your authority. When you get the big “Why?” thrown at you, pause and punctuate the moment with a stare, and then require him to speak his obedience: “Yes, I will be glad to do as you say, and I am sorry for questioning you.” If the inclination to question you is deeply ingrained and he shows any lack of heart compliance, then you should follow with negative consequences like cleaning the kitchen floor or some other chore. If he drags around on the chore, expressing his lack of heart compliance, then give him three licks with the switching instrument of your choice and remind him that it is his attitude that is causing the extra work. As I have said many times, “Meet all negative behavior with negative consequences and the negative behavior will go away.”

There is an exception of which you need to be aware. A very few children have an insatiable desire to know why and how about everything. I had one of those little fellows and I fixed his “Why?” problem the first day I decided it was a problem. When he said, “Why?” I sat down and gave him a long, boring, drawn-out, logical adult reason that strained his patience to the limit. A little while later I told him to do something else and without thought he said, “Why?” I turned and immediately started another lengthy, academic explanation, but he stopped me mid-sentence, saying, “That’s okay, I already know.” The smart kids learn fast.

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11 comments on “Why?”

  1. So sad. Asking “why?” is such an important aspect of growing up. I was once told by a fantastic teacher that we should always be willing to ask why. After all, we know what we do about the world because someone once asked why.

    When my daughter asks why I always give her an answer because there always is one. If I want her to do something there is always a reason.

  2. J, I hope that your daughter won’t have the same expectation from God as she grows up, because we rarely get an answer to that question from Him.

    I answer the “why” question as frequently as possible, most especially when there is an opportunity to teach or instruct. However, that question can and sometimes does stem from an unwilling/uncooperative heart. If I suspect this is the case, there are times when I will not give an answer to test my children, and then I will make a point to answer it later. Though a reason is always nice to have, a child should obey whether or not she’s given a reason. Thankfully, God can give parents the wisdom and discernment to know when that question should be answered.

  3. This article made total sense until you wrote “give him three licks with the switching instrument of your choice”. You just lost all credibility with me, and hopefully with all sensible people. I find taking away toys for a time far more affective and less likely to make my child an angry aggressive person later in life.

  4. As a teacher, your philosophy is the exact opposite of why kids ask “why?”. Yes, sometimes they ask rudely or in a snotty way, but most times it is because they really are curious. I ask, why not explain to them, in age appropriate terms, “why”? Why hold back wisdom and problem solving skills? Kids can gain valuable learning by asking adults “why”. If you happen to be too busy, just tell them you can talk about it later. Or, is it beneath you to answer a question of a little one? God answered a lot of “why”‘s in the Bible. I think we should answer “why”‘s for our little ones. The Bible is one big answer.

  5. J. agree with your response 100%.

    how does teaching your children not to ask why prepare them for later life. You may indeed have the best intentions for your children, but sooner or later they will meet someone who doesn’t, and at that point you want them to ask why, to question the need, to understand, to reason and to make the right decision.

    “all that is needed for evil to flourish is good men to do nothing”

    seems to me that children who are trained not to seek a reason will be prime candidates for allowing evil to flourish

  6. I grew up in a family that was sort of like this- My father had this saying that “Spanking is God’s will to make you grow a strong person in life” so I got spanked as often as possible, usually with a belt for everything and anything I would dare even to question. Yes, the WHY? And not even once he would answer rationally to that – it was more like ‘because I say so’
    I feared my father all my life to the day (I am over 35 with family) and I couldn’t wait to get out of that house because of him. And our relation hasn’t been more than ‘how are you’ after I left that house. Not even mentioning that I feared men for a good period of my life because I was afraid they will hit me if I don’t do as told. Luckily I got the most amazing man in the world, totally against physical punishment.
    My mother on the other hand – she had a different approach – she didn’t spank me once! She had other punishments – she would throw my clothes out the window or simply giving them to the community if I was disorganized, she would send me to school underdressed if I had bad grades, she would made me do twice as many chores if I didn’t do something. And she would reply all my WHY? with very rational explanations (like why is it bad, unhealthy, why is not adequate to wear a certain cloth or go into a certain environment etc.)
    Believe me to the day I respect and I love my mother with all my heart and she is my very best friend. And this because she answered all my WHY-s and made me do things with a smile and a clearer understanding and because she never spanked me.

  7. When my children answer an instruction with “why?” I remind them to say “yes Mummy, why?” when they make a start in following the instruction I explain the “why”

  8. Your kids ask why because people are not robots. They are learning to become moral human beings. They can’t obey unquestioningly until they get enough questions answered that they know that you generally have a good reason for asking them to do something. Trying to make a child obey unquestioningly from birth is attempting to turn him into a robot. God gave him his curiosity and free will.

    1. Hi Forest,
      Thank you for your comment. The attitude we are addressing in this article is not one of curiosity or misunderstanding. A child that asks “Why” in this manner is questioning authority. It is the child’s way of challenging authority, and is essentially saying “Why do I have to obey you?” A healthy parent/child relationships do not need to reestablish authority at every parental request.

      The goal is not to make robots of the children, but to teach children to think for themselves, and make the right choices on their own, so they don’t have to be told to clean their room, pick up their toys, feed the dog, etc. But for the times when they do need to be reminded, cheerful obedience is the correct response.