“Previously, on A Beautiful Place of the World,”… I spent some time discussing the heretical idea of reconsidering our parental requests before and after we make them, and the idea of negotiating with our kids to meet needs (rather than exclusively enforcing parental whim, or focussing on controlling behaviors), and I’ve repeatedly driven away at the idea of giving our children as much information as we can (about what’s happening, how things work, and what to expect). But, although it has come up briefly in comment-conversations elsewhere in this blog, I have yet to write a post about encouraging our kids to ask “Why?”. That is until. . . now.
The first question you might be asking (and perhaps ironically) is “Why should we encourage our kids to ask ‘Why’?”. And on any given day, when I’m feeling less “on my game”, I too might be inclined to ask the same question – which, as it turns out, is itself part of the answer. Wondering “why” is part of who we are. The inclination to ponder the causes of life’s happenings is central to human nature. Even the Latin name we’ve used to designate the current evolutionary version of our species, homo sapiens sapiens, literally “wise wise man”, reflects the keen association we celebrate between our species and knowledge, the pursuit of information, the quest for discovery, and the search for wisdom. This drive is part and parcel of being human. To ignore it is as absurd as running up to a brick wall and shouting at it to stop being a brick wall. And to parent our children as though they need to be fundamentally different from us in this respect until they reach maturity is more absurd still.
Aside from accepting that having a questioning nature is part of our humanity, there are plenty of other reasons to accommodate our children’s copious use of “why”:
- As intimated above, it’s simply more respectful. Our children are just people, who just want to know things like all the rest of us. Treating their interest with care is just kinder. Our kids not only deserve such kindness from us, but they’ll also be more likely to reciprocate with both matching kindness and more willingness to answer our incessant “why”s.
- And further, by respecting their inquisitiveness, we’re not only modeling the kindness and willingness that we want to encourage in return, we’re also modeling a respect for who they are, and a concern for their needs and their interests.
- Being receptive to discussing our intentions, thoughts, and knowledge in any given situation or subject area, also goes a long way toward communicating an openness to our children that, like the above, engenders our shared relationship with greater security and connection.
- Responding to their natural inclination to want to know “why” by teaching them that it is fine to ask and to respond when asked this question in the course of all relationships, strikes me as the most proper kind of socialization. They will spend a good portion of their lives doing these very things, it’s our job to provide space for them to learn the dance.
- And when it comes to compliance with a request, nothing smooths the way better than a solid reason. It’s true in all other human commerce, why shouldn’t it be so in our homes?
- One of the other most potent conductors of cooperation is empathy. When we make a request and are willing to answer “why”, we are offering our children empathy for being human, for wanting information, and for having an interest in their own lives. We thereby both offer and model empathy to them right as we are asking for the same thing in return from them. What better version of cooperation, or manner of teaching it, can we possibly offer our children?
- As they get older, we’ll also want it to be absolutely clear to them that our children can (and we really hope they will) come to us when they have questions about life and the life-altering choices that they will in due course be making. The single best way to communicate that to them is to welcome and humour and fully respond to their questions now, about whatever they ask – even when it includes asking us “why” we want them to do something that we’ve requested.
- Also, the way I figure it, answering all the quandaries and queries, from the monumental to the mundane, including the potentially annoying and time-consuming, “But, why?”, that always seems to crop up as we are headed out the door to umpteen million obligations, is part of what we signed up for as parents. It comes with the territory, like drool and that yummy baby smell.
The bottom line is we want our children to want to know things, to want to explore, and to go on seeking answers – just as they were born to do. We don’t want that quashed out of them by our demands for silent compliance or mindless obedience. We don’t want to train them to have misgivings around their right or ability to question what is happening to them. And further, we don’t want the “why” beaten out of them by how we chose to educate them, either.
The paramount importance, and profundity of this notion of preserving our children’s natural drive to explore and ask “why” doesn’t usually become obvious until later in their lives, when it is already too late. When they are teens following the crowd without stopping to ponder the ramifications or asking “Why?” – it’s too late. When they are off at college, or otherwise out of our “jurisdiction”, and facing pressure to try or do things that put them at risk – it’s too late. When they are out in the world and “on their own”, negotiating relationships, career and business endeavors, personal finance, and contracts of all sorts – it’s too late to consider how we might encourage their innate curiosity and drive to question their experience and ask “why”. By the time our children are teenagers, we will have already made our bets on either encouraging them to ask “why” or leaving them less empowered to do so – and for better or worse, that is what they will have to work with until they are old enough to reprogram themselves.
In our home, we not only tolerate, and encourage, and celebrate our kids’ asking “why” – we actively foster it in all the ways that we can stand. We recognize that in some ways this classifies us as gluttons for parental punishment, now, but we keep our eyes on the prize – i.e. the fully realized humans that we hope, and strive, and make room for our children to become. And with that focus firmly in our minds, we have no trouble remembering why we’re such big fans of “why”.