Recently, I ran a professional development course for teachers and we had a big discussion about the simple question “Why?” When I told the participants we had to consider the use of this question carefully, they were confused. To them, “Why?” was an open question that allowed children to express themselves.
Why should we consider not allowing kids to express themselves?
When asked “Why?”, all the people in the world activate a mechanism in their brain that searches for the answer. Even if you ask the question and give the person a long time to find the answer, their brain will not rest until it finds the answer.
Therapists and teachers can make very good use for this when they want to develop mindfulness and critical thinking skills.
For example, when my clients say they want to start a diet or go to university, leave a job or look for a partner, I simply ask them “Why?” It is a very good question to find motives and sources of pressure. If I ask, “Why do you want to go to university?” and they answer, “Because I don’t have a better idea for what to do with myself”, I know that the motivation for studying is a shaky and I need to focus on what studying can give them and take away from them.
If I ask, “Why do you want to start a diet?” and the answer is, “My sister said something nasty to me about my weight”, then I know that the motivation here is fear or the desire to please someone else, which is never good enough for eating lettuce and is a formula for failure. In this case, I need to work with the client on finding internal motivation, or some other goal, so that they can experience success.
But “Why?” is a bad question when someone has done something we wish they had not done, like mess up the carpet, break our favorite vase or forget to do their homework.
If we are sailing in the sea of discomfort and pain, asking “Why?” only gives us a heavy anchor that prevents us from moving forward
Because when you ask someone why he is being abusive, why she is being stubborn or why they are being silly, they will find an answer and you do not want them to hear their answers.
Because we desperately need to believe that we are good. When someone tells us we have done something bad, we look for a way to explain our behavior as something a good person would do, so that we can continue to believe that we are good.
So when asked “Why?” pepole will come up with justification for their undesired behavior. In fact, every time they are asked “Why?” the justification grows stronger and this reinforces the undesired behavior. It is hard to eradicate someone’s thought, feeling or behavior by giving them an opportunity to justify it.
Let me give you an example. Your son has hit his little brother and you ask, “Why did you hit your brother?”
The child will seek an answer and will always find it, and when he tells it to you, he will hear himself justifying hitting his brother.
I do not want to know why my child hit his brother and I sure do not want my child to explain to me why he did that, so I do not give him an opportunity to do it.
Here is another example. My daughter is back from school and her report card is full of C’s. If I ask her, “Why is your report card full of C’s?” she will search and find an answer. All her answers will be justification for it, so that she can feel good about herself.
Because this is how we are programmed – to justify our actions, thoughts and feelings, whether they are good or not good for us.
So what should we do instead?
It is better to ask, “What can we do to help you be more confident about your schoolwork next term?” or “What would help you do better from now on?”
Because her brain will search and will find an answer, but this way, it will find a helpful one.
The hardest part for the teachers was when I told them that when kids expressed sadness or discomfort, they should not ask them why they were feeling that way. Again, I said, it only makes them justify the feeling.
It is OK to listen, to reflect (“I can see that it made you sad” or ” I understand”), and after a while, in order to empower the child to move on, it is best to ask forward-moving questions, like “Is there anything I can do to help?”, “What would you like to do now?”, “Is there a way you can talk to this kid?” or “What can you do now to feel better?” Every one of those forward-moving questions will be answered, at least internally, and motivate the child to move on from the bad feeling towards a better one.
If we are sailing in the sea of discomfort and pain, the question, Why? Only give us a heavy anchor that prevents us from moving forward. So, when your child or student is doing something that is not desired, do not allow him/her to justify it and throw an anchor.
Sarcastic questions are statements in disguise
Another thing that is not useful in our work and communication with children (and adults) is sarcasm. Sarcasm is often delivered as a question with a hidden a statement in it.
For example, when you say, “Why did you think it was a good idea?” this is not a question, but a statement in disguise. You are actually saying, “I don’t think it is a good idea”, so just say it! It is better than risking your child justifying a bad idea.
When you say, “Why are you behaving like a moron?” this is not a question. You are actually saying, “I think you are behaving like a moron”. If this is what you think, it is better to say it than risking your child trying to justify behaving like a moron.
“Why?” is a very important question when we want people to think about their answers, consider their motives and develop mindfulness. When they are doing things we do not wish for them to continue doing, thinking or feeling, asking why will do exactly the opposite.