The One Question to Avoid Asking Your Child If You Want Them to Reflect On What They Did Wrong and Do Better Next Time

Sometimes kids do outrageous things.

They scribble all over their bedroom wall with a Sharpie. They hit their sibling on the head with a plastic toy. They give the cat a bath in the toilet. They flip their dinner plate out onto the floor and then laugh about it. They let go of your hand in the supermarket parking lot, start running, and almost get hit by a car.

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These are moments when we are aghast as parents. We can’t make sense of their behavior. We don’t think it’s funny. We don’t think it’s safe.

And we also want them to know, in no uncertain terms, that it’s NOT okay and that they shouldn’t do it again.

So we end up blurting out the first thing that comes to mind:

“WHY did you do that?!”

Which is, ironically, the ONE question your child is incapable of answering.

The Reason Children Might Give You a Blank Stare or a Weird Answer When You Ask Them THIS

When you ask your child “why” they did something, you legitimately want to know their motives. Were they just not thinking? Were they angry? Bored?

According to parenting expert Shelly Lefkoe, when you ask a child WHY they did something, they don’t really know why they did it.

“Children do what they do for a variety of reasons—discovering the world, testing their limits, finding their individuality, and so on,” says Shelly. “But a child could never articulate this, because they’re still trying to figure out what life is about.”

That’s why your child will give you that blank stare and say, “I don’t know.” They really don’t know.

Or they’ll make something up on the spot that makes no sense whatsoever. Or they flat-out lie.

This is the main reason you don’t want to ask your young child “why” they did something wrong: Because they are incapable of answering that question thoughtfully anyway.

The other reason you don’t want to ask “why” is much more important, and has serious consequences for the rest of their life.

The Word That Leaves a Trail of Shame, Unworthiness and Low Self-Esteem In Kids and Adults

When you raise your voice and approach your child in an abrupt manner (or yank them back to safety, like in the parking lot example) and say, Why did you do that? they may not know the answer.

But they WILL have a thought about what they’re seeing.

They SEE your angry body language and HEAR your aggravated tone.

They did something based on their own internal logic and reasons (whatever those were), and you scolded them and yelled. They interpret this as meaning there’s something wrong with them.

Instead of reflecting on what they did, or pondering the consequences, or working to solve the problem, they just feel shame.

Shame may lead them to conclude that they’re not lovable or not good enough.

Years later, when they’re teens and then adults, the self-belief that there’s something wrong with them or that they’re not good enough may lead them to be afraid to try out for the team, or take on that big creative project at work, or ask out that attractive friend on a date.

It’s because they’ve internalized those negative beliefs about not being good enough or having something wrong with them. These beliefs keep them from taking risks or having enough self-esteem to try new or challenging things.

And it all started with one innocent question, one little word: WHY.

Approach Your Child With Genuine Curiosity By Asking This Question Instead:

Ok, you might think, but I really want to understand why my kid did what he did.

And you can, but there’s a much better question to ask your child that will give you the insights you want without the negative consequences you don’t.

According to Shelly, there’s a better question to ask a child—one they are actually capable of answering, and one that can lead them to be motivated to make better choices next time.

That question is, “What?”

As in… What were you thinking? What can we do about it? What will you do differently next time? What may happen if you do this again?

“This works even with the smallest children,” says Shelly. It prompts them to think creatively. It forces them to problem-solve and take responsibility. It motivates them to change their behavior.

Not convinced? Ok, then think of it this way:

Imagine if YOU did something wrong or made a mistake. Perhaps you said something you shouldn’t have to your best friend, and now she’s angry and hurt.

Ask yourself, “Ugh! Why did I do that?”

How do you feel about yourself when you hear that question in your mind? Do you feel stupid, thoughtless, uncaring?

Now, ask yourself, “What was I thinking when I said that? What could I have said instead?”

Do you see how the tone shifts between one of shame and blame, to one of curiosity and possibility?

The “why” question is rhetorical. Rather than stemming from curiosity, it’s scolding and self-deprecating.

The “what” question is genuinely more open-ended and inquisitive. Meaning, you’re actually seeking to understand, not criticize or blame.

That’s why asking your child, “What” is a much better approach to asking them “why”.

Sometimes the Smallest Changes Can Make the Biggest Difference In Your Child’s Life

Isn’t it amazing how much difference one little word can make in your child’s life?

Simply asking them “what” instead of “why” when they make a mistake can shift them from a space of shame and negative self-beliefs to a space of curiosity and creative problem-solving.

How we talk to our kids can affect how they feel about themselves now and for the rest of their life. Most parents know that overtly shaming or saying derogatory things to kids is a destructive approach, but what they don’t know is that sometimes the words we use to discipline kids or make them feel better when they’re upset are making them feel worse.

mom laughing and playing with her teen son and daughter

Sometimes the things we think are helpful can be harmful.

How can we know that we’re doing the best we can with our kids?

That’s a GREAT question, and one that many, many parents have as well.

That’s why we decided to turn to some of the world’s top experts and get their insights and advice on how to avoid the most common mistakes with parenting, and what to do instead.

When you subscribe to our free expert advice newsletter, you’ll get information-rich articles delivered to your inbox, with tons of actionable tips and specific advice to help you make positive changes in your parenting approach. These are articles by psychotherapists, authors, speakers and experts with decades of real-world experience working with families.

You’ll get articles from how to avoid some of the most common mistakes parents make and what you can do today to make sure you’re raising kids who will become happy, successful adults.

You’ll learn how to get your kids to cooperate without punitive time-outs and harsh punishments (which don’t work anyway), so you can finally end the tantrums and battles and create more harmony in your home.

You’ll hear how to tell your child “no” in a way that’s kind and firm, so you’re still able to maintain your boundaries while training your child to strengthen their “disappointment muscles.” This trains them that they will survive, even if mom and dad can’t give them everything they want, when they want it.

You’ll hear about the importance of self-care and giving yourself a break in order to be a better, calmer parent for your kids. You’ll get both short-term quick stress busting tips and longer-term strategies for maintaining YOUR wellbeing as a parent.

You’ll also learn:

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  • How to help kids develop a strong sense of belonging and an ability to handle disappointments and remedy their mistakes later in life.
  • Why it’s so hard to set limits and rules around “screen time” and real-life examples of how to use positive parenting in addressing this ubiquitous problem
  • The common style of parenting that can result in a child growing up to procrastinate, not stand up for themselves or have relationship issues—and how to recognize if you’re doing it right now

And much more…

Our goal in creating this program was to help parents see that what they’ve been doing is not only making their jobs as parents more difficult, but that it’s often having the opposite effect of what they’re hoping to achieve with their kids.

Once you learn the secrets, you’ll be so relieved and your kids will be much happier.

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