Inside: We might not understand the real reason our kids ask, “Why?” But here’s the why behind the why’s, plus the magic phrase to stop kids asking why all day.
I have a love-hate relationship with those kid-sized carts at the grocery store.
Seeing my toddler stand a little taller as she steps up to the plate behind her very own cart? Love.
Watching her methodically arrange every item in the cart like it’s the most important job in the world? Love.
Being on high alert every time she moves a centimeter, to make sure she doesn’t ram the cart into the back of someone’s legs, take a corner too fast and dump all our groceries on the floor, or knock over the perfectly balanced display for this week’s sale on Pinot Grigio? No, thank you.
Now Add This to the Mix
A few weekends ago, we stopped by the store right before my toddler’s nap time. Which meant Bailey’s cart-driving style felt a lot like a game of Bumper Cars.
With baby Charlie on my hip, I hovered close behind Bailey to head off disaster, offering super helpful warnings of “Watch out!” every five seconds.
She’s two, so each time I said, “Watch out,” her response was, “Why?”
Because you’re going to hit someone.
Because you almost knocked over those watermelons.
Because Mommy’s slowly losing her mind.
With every “why,” my tone got sharper and my words got shorter. To save my sanity, I switched tactics and started putting my hand on her shoulder to slow her Tasmanian Devil rampage.
We were managing alright until a middle-aged man took his life into his own hands by walking right in front of her cart as we entered an aisle.
I reached out to grab her shirt. “Watch where you’re going, Bails.”
“Why?” she asked.
I sighed. “Because that man stepped in front of you, and you almost ran into him.”
I let go, and she plowed ahead into the aisle, not at all flustered by the near-collision.
“Why?” But it wasn’t from Bailey. My head snapped up, my narrowed eyes settling on the source.
A guy. Smiling and chuckling at his joke.
I guess the look on my face gave him the idea I wasn’t in a joking mood because his smile slipped, and he said, “No, I get it!”
He gestured to a middle-school-aged kid trailing behind him.
I recovered and laughed, but I didn’t linger to swap all our best parenting tips for coping with kids asking why because I had a loose cannon to chase.
What We’re Doing Wrong When Our Kids Ask, “Why?”
My overreaction to a stranger’s friendly comment was the wake-up call I needed.
I realized that for the first few why’s of every day, I was the model of patience. I calmly explained whatever it was to my toddler, sometimes even coming up with a playful metaphor to bring the point home.
But as we reached 5, 10, 20 why’s, my reserves of patience dried up. Not only that, she’d ask “Why?” for the same things, every day.
- Please shut the baby gate when you go upstairs. Why?
- It’s time to calm your body down for sleep. Why?
- Toothpaste is for brushing your teeth, not for eating. Why?
Up until that weekend, I misunderstood what my toddler was really asking when she asked, “Why?”
She didn’t want me to give her the right answer. Giving her the right answer meant she’d still ask the same question the next time.
She wanted me to lead her toward the answer.
The Magic Phrase to Use With Kids Asking Why
After my eureka moment, I decided I wouldn’t answer the knee-jerk why’s anymore.
Instead, I came up with a new phrase that I use in those situations. Not only has this phrase saved my stores of patience for more important things like when my toddler colors on the furniture with a Sharpie, but it’s also cut way back on the number of why’s I hear every day.
Even when I do hear a why, my toddler will often jump right in after her own question to offer up an idea for an explanation.
If you’re tired of answering your child’s why’s and don’t want to resort to “Because I said so,” try saying this instead:
“You tell me why.”
And wait for her to come up with an explanation. Your little one might need a gentle nudge when you first try this out, so feel free to ask some follow-up questions to get her gears turning. For example:
- What would happen if…? What would happen if you left the baby gate open, and your baby sister crawled over to the stairs?
- Do you think…? Do you think jumping up and down on the bed will get your body ready for sleep?
- Do you see…? Do you see where we keep food in our house? Is that where we keep the toothpaste?
Start with this, and go from there:
“You tell me why.”
This phrase has been a lifesaver in the last few weeks. I now have a positive way to respond to kids asking why, giving me one fewer trigger for losing my cool with my little ones.
But First, a Disclaimer
This is the important part: You have to keep your cool when saying, “You tell me why.”
If you grit your teeth or heave a big sigh or use a snappy tone, it won’t work. You have to want to hear your child’s ideas for this phrase to be effective. And kids are intuitive. They’ll know if you don’t really mean it, and you won’t achieve your desired effect. In other words, have fun continuing to answer “Why?” 70 million times a day.
I made the mistake of using a snappy tone one day, and my daughter shut down. She wouldn’t answer me, and the phrase stopped working. We were back to square one. So I took a break for a few days and tried “You tell me why” again. I kept my tone curious and upbeat, and lucky for me, the damage wasn’t permanent. The magic lived on!
A few more caveats for you:
- Your little one’s brain is working, working, working. Be patient while she comes up with an answer. It might take a few more seconds than you’d expect. You can always try a follow-up question like the ones I gave above, but sometimes just waiting will do the trick.
- Your body language is key. If you cross your arms and show frustration on your face, this phrase won’t work. One trick I’ve found works well is to cock my head a little to one side while I wait. This shows her I’m interested in what she has to say. (I learned this trick from my friend Lauren, who has lots more useful tips on how to teach kids to listen without using words.)
- You might need to fill in the holes. Your kid is figuring out how this big crazy world works, so her first explanation won’t always be spot on. Try to find something you can agree with in her explanation, then bridge from that to your explanation. For example, suppose you tell her to stop eating toothpaste and her first explanation is, “Because it tastes bad.” You might reply with, “That’s right. It doesn’t taste as good as food. But also, it doesn’t have the healthy vitamins and other stuff your body needs from food. And if you swallow too much toothpaste, you might get a tummyache.”
- Your mileage may vary. This worked with my kiddo, and the friends I’ve shared it with said it worked for them, too. But every kid is different, so I can’t guarantee it’ll work for you. Just give it a try for a few days and see what happens. Worst case, you end up back where you started. And best case, you’ll hear about 69 million fewer why’s a day.
What This Phrase Won’t Do
Even though this phrase is magic, it won’t help your kid avoid wreaking havoc while pushing her own cart around the grocery store.
If you’re like me and you have a love-hate relationship with those kid-sized shopping carts, let me know if you figure out the secret to avoiding frustration as you hover behind your kid.
In the meantime, I considered trying to convince her the carts aren’t as fun as she thinks, but after thinking it through, here’s what I decided: When my toddler asks if she can push her own shopping cart at the store, I’ll humor her, every time.
Because one day, she won’t ask to push a kid-sized cart. And I’ll ask, “Aren’t you going to grab a cart, honey?”
She’ll wrinkle her nose and say, “No, Mom.” In that moment, three thoughts will pop-pop-pop through my mind:
- She calls me “Mom” now?
- She’s too grown-up to push a kid’s cart?
- I miss the why stage.
So on that day, don’t be surprised if you find me pushing my own cart through the store, ugly-crying while she hangs back pretending she doesn’t know me.
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How do you handle your kids asking why? Share in a comment below!
Facebook preview photo by Donnie Ray Jones.
I’m a mom of four, a recovering perfectionist, and the author of Happy You, Happy Family. Parenting is hard enough without all the guilt we heap on top of ourselves. So let’s stop trying to be perfect parents and just be real ones. Sound good? Join my mailing list and as a bonus, you’ll get 25+ incredibly helpful cheat sheets that will ease your parenting struggles.