Why Not to Use the Word Why

As a therapist who loves working with children, I often have parents seek tips and advice for ways to improve their relationships with their children. The most important piece of advice I can offer is “Never Ask Why”. It might sound strange, but this small piece of advice is extremely helpful and can change the way we engage with not only our children, but our work colleagues, friends, and family members.

So how can such a small piece of advice be so important?

Think back to when you were a little boy or girl. Think of a time when you did something naughty. What was the first thing your parent, grandparent or teacher said to you when it was uncovered?

“Why did you do that?”

This single question generated within the younger version of you a sense of guilt and shame. It caused you to look to the ground and avoid eye contact. It perhaps made your lip quiver, made your cry and in some instances caused you to wet yourself. The most important word in the sentence is “Why”, and whenever someone asks us why, it automatically generates a defensive internal position, as it makes us feel challenged, blamed or accused of something.

If we take 7-year-old Linda, and we discover that she just stole a biscuit from one of the other children’s lunch boxes. If the teacher was to approach Linda and ask, “Why did you do that”, Linda would typically close down, find it difficult to answer and become upset. If however the teacher avoided the use of why, then she would be forced to explore Linda’s behaviour in a different way. For example:

Teacher: Linda, can I speak to you for a moment…

Linda: Yes Miss

Teacher: Linda I noticed that you took a biscuit from John’s lunch box and I hoped we could talk about it.

(Linda will feel a sense of guilt and shame at this point and her behaviour will be impacted by the teacher, but because the approach from the teacher has not been punitive so far, Linda will be curious)

Linda: I didn’t mean to do it miss.

Teacher: I understand that you didn’t mean to do it Linda, but I guess we both know that taking John’s biscuit without asking is naughty?

Linda: Yes Miss

Teacher: How best can we resolve this situation Linda?

Linda: I will put the biscuit back and tell John that I’m sorry.

Teacher: That would be very brave of you Linda, and I would be proud of you doing that. Can I ask if you understand a little more about the reason for taking the biscuit?

Linda: I was very hungry Miss, there was nothing to eat this morning, and my mum said she can’t get food shopping until pay day…

The above is a very simplistic scenario, but it demonstrates how we can regulate an emotional response, encourage discussion, find understanding and work towards a resolve. If the teacher had asked “why”, then the discussion and outcome would have been considerable different and would have been led by a punitive approach.

Go out there and try it. Remove the word “Why” and see what happens, thereafter we can consider the words “Should” and “Must”.

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