A Better Alternative to the "Why Question"

One question commonly asked of children can undermine efforts to help them learn self-regulation and to respect agreed-upon rules. The question is “Why did you do that?” It’s natural for adults to ask that, since the things children do (hit someone for no apparent reason, squish their play-dough into the carpet) seem so mysterious.

The easiest way for us to understand the effects of the “why question” is to try it on out ourselves. When someone asks me why I did something, I can feel accused, especially if they say “Why would you do that?” as if my motivation is beyond understanding. Asked for an answer, my human response is to find ways to justify my behavior. My brain floods with reasons to validate my position.

Asking children to explain why they do things like hurt others, endanger themselves, or destroy property also involves giving them a lot of our energy for the wrong reasons. Getting attention for rule breaking (and explaining the reasons) encourages children to repeat the behavior. In the Nurtured Heart Approach, children are asked to simply reset themselves when a rule is broken. This prevents children from trying to get attention by breaking rules and offering explanations for why they did it.

When we need to understand a situation, a better question than “Why?” is “Can you tell me what happened?” Sometimes children are arguing, and the chance to reconstruct the events helps resolve the conflict. Going over what happened also takes the discussion out of the realm of self-defense and allows the child to share feelings and learn about other choices. (“I thought he was going to take my toy, so I hit him.”) We can ask questions to spur new responses to the same event: “What else could you have done?” “What can you do next time?”