What not Why – One of my pet peeves is when someone answers a Why? Question with “because.” Like that’s even an answer! (or a complete sentence!) There are so many great words in language and to just smugly say, “because” is irritating to me. I was complaining about this to a colleague and she pointed out that I kept hearing the wrong answers because I was asking the wrong questions.
Asking someone “why” puts them in explanation mode, directly in the spotlight. If you are feeling even a little insecure or emotional about this topic, it is far too easy to be defensive. When that happens, you get answers such as: “because” (shudder) or “I just do” or “I dunno.” If delivered incorrectly, the question “why” can also come across as judgmental or condescending. With all of these aspects in mind, it is clear that, in conversation, the word “why” can actually serve to interfere with people expanding on their thoughts and feelings.
To engender these deeper conversations, I suggest using the word “what” instead of “why” in questions. For example, if a kid tells me that their favorite movie is “Avengers,” I try to ask: “What do you like about it?” Even if I get another “I dunno” to that answer, the further prompts are easier to reach: “Is it the acting? The direction? Robert Downey Jr.’s facial hair?” We are closer to a conversation. If I ask “Why?,” the kid (who might be already feeling defensive, insecure, or mistrustful today) is more likely to interpret that question as a challenge. And challenges lead to either fight (“Because I just LIKE it, OK?!?! GAWD!”) or flight (“I dunno, I don’t even like it, whatever.”)
Remember how I asked you to be curious above? (Scroll up if you don’t believe me). “What?” is a question that engenders curiosity. As a question, “Why?” calls for explanation and defense. “What?” is a question that invites the child to go deeper. We might feel like “why?” is trying to get at that genuine curiosity, and I believe you when you tell me that is what you are trying to do. I do! I have met very few parents who are not well-intentioned and want to connect with their kids. So try adding this strategy. I think that you will see results.
The type of questions that we ask with “What” tend to elicit more response as well. “What do you like about that?” opens up the curious part of your kid’s brain, the part that likes to problem-solve (and, frankly, to show off a little). Think about ways to reframe comment “why?” questions as “What?” questions.
Here are some examples (use your own spin on the words).
|“Why are you playing that video game?”||“What’s this game?”|
|“Why are you being so mean to your brother?”||“What is going on with you guys?”|
|“Why are you being so difficult today?”||“What is so hard right about this?”|
|“Why did you do this?!!”||“What was your thought process?”|
(To further the example with an interaction that happened with my editor right after I finished this section. She said, “Why did you put #6 in?” I immediately felt my guard rise and my jaw set. Then she caught herself and said, “Wait. No. What do you like about this section?” I actually laughed and said, “See?! It works!” and then went on to explain my rationale. I actually do try to practice what I preach, so I felt compelled to share this story with you.)