You come out of the shower to find your floor covered in cereal. You hear one kid hit the other in the back seat. You find out it was your kid who stole that one thing, or said that horrible thing, or….
Your response is the primal cry I imagine ringing out from parents since the dawn of time: “WHY????”
Let me stop you for a second there. First of all, I get it. I really do. I’ve done this a million times. But second…. What exactly do you think your child is going to say to you?
“I was feeling insecure due to recent scheduling changes and I decided that a cry for help would be an appropriate course of action.”
“I have been really low on sensory stimulation today and, after giving it some thought, Cheerios seemed like a perfect antidote.”
“I have conflicting feelings about my increasing independence and impending adulthood, so I decided to test the boundaries in order to get a little more parenting from you before I go.”
Yeah. My kids wouldn’t say those things either. Most of the time, the response is some variety of, “Ummmmm…. I don’t know.”
Asking why in these situations is ineffective for several reasons:
- Kids don’t have enough insight into their own feelings or behaviors to give you a really helpful response. The best they can do is either tell you what they think you want to hear or just punt because they have no idea what’s going on.
- Depending on how you ask, the question itself can be shaming for kids. It’s akin to asking, “What’s wrong with you?” It crosses the line from asking about a child’s actions, to suggesting that there is something wrong about the child herself.
- It can put a kid on the defensive, activating her amygdala and shutting down her ability to reason. That’s the last thing you want if you’re going to try to teach something!
So, what do you say instead? Here are some ideas:
- What were you feeling when…? This can help kids walk back in a mindful way and see how feelings and behavior interact.
- Do you need…? When you have an insight into the behavior that the kid may not, this can help a lot. “Do you feel like you need some time with Mommy? Do you feel hungry? Do you feel like you need some sleep?”
- Can you check in with your body for a minute and see if you can tell me what you’re feeling? I like this one with about 7 and up, because it really encourages mindfulness. We all need mindfulness if we want insights into our behavior!
None of this means that you don’t give the child a chance to repair what happened. They still need to clean up the floor so they can feel they have a clean slate! But avoiding the “why” question can really help this interaction be calmer and less activated for both you and your kiddo.
Of course, sometimes you’re still going to join the primal cry of parents throughout time, but it helps to have more tools in your toolbox.