Your toddler yells and hits you.
The teacher says your grade schooler used a bad word.
Your pre-teen leaves the dirty clothes on the floor—again.
Your teenager lied.
After you get hit with the initial visceral feelings, what do you say?
If you’re like a lot of moms and dads before they learn about positive-belief parenting, you’re probably inclined to lash out with:
“WHY DID YOU DO THAT?”
In asking this question, you’re trying to make sense of what happened. You’re trying to jolt them into realizing that this is not good behavior. And you’re definitely trying to convey that this should not happen again.
And yet asking “why” is one of the most ineffective questions you can pose to a child.
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.
But a child could never articulate this, because they’re still trying to figure out what life is about—and we’re really ALL trying to do this for our entire lives, if you really think about it. How many times have you, as an adult, asked yourself, “Why on Earth did I do that?”
Asking yourself this question doesn’t guarantee an accurate answer. You might not even be able to identify your own motivations. What’s more, asking “why” just makes you feel ashamed, wrong, and without any clear direction for what to do differently.
It’s the same for our children.
They often don’t know “why,” and so they’ll make something up—meaning you won’t get a clear answer anyway.
At the same time, asking why fills them with shame and the belief that they really should have known better, leading them to think, “There must be something wrong with me,” or “I’m just not capable,” or “I’m not good enough.”
As they get older, they can internalize this feeling and grow up to be adults who shy away from taking risks, are riddled with self doubt, and feel that there’s just something fundamentally wrong with them.
Instead of asking “why,” there’s a much better way to encourage your child to reflect on poor behavior and to be motivated to make better choices.
Use “what,” like this:
What can we do about it?
What were you thinking?
What can you do differently next time?
What might the consequences of your actions be?
Asking what is much, much more powerful. These are questions that are useful, because you always want to teach your children to look inside for the answers—since you will not always be there to supply them.
This works even with the smallest children.
A toddler might be thinking that if he yells and screams, he’ll get attention. Then you can tell him that there’s a better way to get what he wants.
Your grade schooler can own up to the foul language, apologize, and agree to use different words.
Your pre-teen can come up with the idea to move the hamper into the bathroom.
Your teenager can realize all on her own that lying wasn’t worth it. That’s exactly what happened with our daughter Brittney, who, after we respectfully confronted her about a lie, told us in tears she’d never felt so awful and would not want to damage the relationship she had with us.
You went over budget.
You said something you regret to your spouse.
You agreed to do a favor when you really don’t have the time.
You blew your diet.
How do you feel when that voice in your head says, “Why did you do that?!”
Do you feel like learning from the experience and taking some empowered action, or do you feel like grabbing the bag of Oreos and flipping through Netflix?
I thought so.
Now, when you think about what areas you can adjust your spending, or how you can prevent fights from escalating with your spouse, do you feel a glimmer of possibility inside?
When you ask yourself how you can set better boundaries on your time and make a plan to pick up healthy snacks, can you feel how things are looking up and you’re feeling like you’re capable of alternatives?
Asking why is never going to produce motivation and change—for anyone. The fact that we think it’s any different for children shows how little most of us know about how children process experiences and form critical beliefs about themselves.
Taking the blame and shame out of parenting is as easy as dropping the word “why.”
Encouraging your child to develop self-awareness and self-regulation is as simple as choosing “what” and “how.”
In the case with my daughter, the result of our conversation was transformative. The following day after our talk, there was a maturity there, and there was a difference in her.
And it was all because she was treated with dignity and respect and given the opportunity to screw up.
She wasn’t punished, and she wasn’t absolved—she really had to think about what she did.
Now, if Britney continue to lie, then there would be consequences. But the first time—and even the second time—talking about it, getting to the source of it, and asking the child “What were you thinking?” and “What made you do that?” makes a world of difference.
In my program Parenting That Empowers, I’ll give you many more examples of situations that are likely to come up with your child—from toddler through college—along with in-depth role play and scripts.
You’ll learn how to parent your child in the toughest situations so that you teach effective lessons in the moment while nurturing the positive beliefs that will allow them to make decisions based on personal integrity, for the rest of their lives.
Maybe as you were reading the scenarios above, you were thinking that you’d never cause your child to feel resentful or powerless.
But every parent is prone to doing so.
Just think of the times when you’re really tired, when you’re pushed to your limits—those moments when you just can’t take another thing on your plate.
When you train yourself to use the skills and tools in my program, they’ll become second nature to you—even when you’re tired, even when you are annoyed, even when you’re angry.How To Raise A Self-Motivated Adult
When you start to ask your child “what” instead of “why,” you’ll notice that, gradually, you won’t even have to ask the question much at all. Your child will develop the belief that he’s responsible for his behavior, and how it reflects on him.
P.S. How do you get your child to do what you want them to do—while still respecting them and instilling the belief that what they want also matters?
One way is to turn your request into a game, and I’ll tell you just how to do that in Module 2 of Parenting That Empowers:Get Your Kids To Say Yes Without A Battle