Ever ask your kid why they did some (dumb, unwanted, whatever) thing?  Yeah, me too.  But!  When I’m running my parenting “A” game, I try not to–for at least 2 good reasons.

The first reason is that an influential teacher early in my career always said that the only answer to “Why did you do that?”  was something along the lines of “…because I’m a jerk.”  (except when he said it, he usually used a more colorful word than jerk!)  Strong language aside, it’s a very good point–“Why did you do that?” is often a rhetorical question, because what a parent means to say is more along the lines of “I wish you hadn’t done that.”  Better to actually say what we really mean, you know?  It makes for better communication, more honesty, better relationships, etc…

James Lehman says that when we ask our kids “Why” they did something, we are in effect teaching them to make excuses for their behavior.  His point is, we’re plainly saying that if they can just give us a good enough “why” answer, then we will understand/forgive/overlook their behavior.  So of course they are going to try to come up with a reason (ie, make an excuse) EVERY time they get in trouble–we taught them how!   I realize that every once in a while there really is a situation where the reasons justify the actions, but that’s much more rare than our questioning.  And certainly with younger children, who may not even have the cognitive development to understand the concept, much less answer it–what parents instead get is a series of guesses that the child intuitively hopes will satisfy the parent (NOT real explanations!)

So, experiment for a while–try to banish “Why” questions from your parenting vocabulary for a couple of weeks, and see what happens.  Let me know how it goes!

2022 update: Just to clarify, I think that the ‘why’ behind behavior is often very important, I just don’t think it’s particularly effective to ask why in the moment.

Originally posted 2010.