Why’s Aren’t Always Wise

Dear Dr. Ray,
Every time I ask my six-year-old, Joshua, why he did something, he answers, “I don’t know.” Is it possible he really doesn’t know why he does what he does? ―In the Dark

I don’t know. But I do know that “Why did you do that?” or something similar is the most common brand of question parents ask kids. Ironically, it’s also the brand of question that gets the fewest answers. Your Joshua must be a pretty bright little guy, because he at least gives you an “I don’t know.” With most six-year-olds, a typical exchange goes something like this:

Mom: Sherlock, why on earth would you carve your initials into the aluminum siding one day after we put it up?
Sherlock: Partial blank stare, as if to say, What aluminum siding? What initials?
Mom (trying again): If you don’t know, who knows?
Sherlock: Full blank stare, now directed toward his shoelaces.
Mom (resorting to multiple choice―she provides the answers, all Sherlock has to do is pick one): Were you mad because I made you stay inside yesterday? (Silence) Do you want to be like Delbert, who does anything he pleases? (Deadly silence) Did you want to show me how well you can write cursive? (Deafening silence; then one last desperate attempt) Sherlock, I’m so mad I can’t see straight. But if you give me one good reason for those initials, I’m not even going to punish you.

That’s the one I’d hold out for. And then I’d probably make something up: “Mom, you remember the time when I was four that I burped spaghetti sauce on Sheila’s head and you dragged me by the ear all the way to my bedroom? Well, that’s why. I’ve been holding that in for two years.” If a first or second why gets no answers, whys #3 through #36 are likely to meet the same fate. So why (there’s that word again) do we persist in asking? For a couple of reasons. One, a widely held parenting notion is that we must know why kids do what they do in order to change it. Fortunately, that’s not true. You just can’t always figure out kids. And for most day-to-day mischief, their motives aren’t fancy. They’re usually some combination of the big three: I felt like it; my friends do it; I thought for sure I could get away with it.

The second reason for wanting the why is purely personal: It drives us crazy not to be able to fathom the motive behind puzzling, unpredictable, or just plain nutty behavior. We mistakenly assume that psychologically savvy parents always understand their children. Actually, psychologically savvy parents understand that some ignorance is normal parenthood.

Why do kids keep their reasons to themselves? Sometimes they really don’t know why they did what they did. Insight into one’s motives is a skill that comes with maturity. We grownups don’t always possess it. Sometimes kids are embarrassed by their reason―”I hit her because she sneezed.” Most often, silence is their best defense. You’re already so incensed over Joshua’s shaving the dog’s tail, he figures he’ll only compound his troubles by giving you his childish reason. At the most merciful, he’ll be shot at sunrise. A standard kid motto is: When discipline is looming, don’t admit to anything.

Certainly you can ask why once or twice, but if no response is forthcoming (typical initial why failure rate is 77.23 percent), my advice is to drop the interrogation. Let Joshua know that it would be in his best interests to supply some method to his madness―it may provide mitigating circumstances―but you’re not planning to haul out the bright lights to wrench it out of him.

With a six-year-old, a more fruitful question to ask is: What did you do? Besides being an easier question for him to answer, it’s an easier question for you to answer. You know what he did. You can see the spray paint on the garage walls. Can you be so sure of yourself with why questions? To be sure, some kids won’t even answer “What did you do?” Instead, they plead, “I didn’t do anything.” He’s lived in your house for six years and not once has he ever done anything.

A second question to ask is, “What happens when you do that?” or “What should we do about that?” Of course, Josh is thinking to himself, “What do you mean we? You aren’t going to lose TV for a week. You aren’t going to help me scrub the garage walls.”

The point you’re making is that there will be consequences for such behavior, even if neither of you understands the why of the behavior. Placing consequences on irresponsible, destructive, or nasty behavior is generally more important, and easier, than getting a youngster to identify his motives.

There’s a bright side to not knowing why. Sometimes we’re better off in the dark, because our kids’ motives might scare us, confuse us further, or really make us mad. As my mom used to warn me, “Don’t tell me why. I’m upset enough already!”

Dr. Ray