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I think a right of passage for life as a parent is when your first child starts to ask “Whyyyyyyyyy?” Or if you are McKenna, “Why ’cause?”
For some parents, the word “Why” has a similar affect as nails on the chalkboard. You might want to say, “Because I said so, that’s why.” I remember my parents often getting frustrated with my never-ending string of whys, but I also remember as a child not understanding why they where frustrated with why. I wasn’t asking to oppose their authority–I was asking because I wanted to know why.
Because of this memory, I have worked hard to always answer sincere “whys.” As a parent, I understand why “why” gets frustrating–even sincere whys. I have been blessed with three very inquisitive children (much to the delight of my parents). Sometimes we don’t really know how to articulate why, especially not on a child’s level. Children don’t always time their questions at a moment when we are able to sit down and talk about it. Sometimes we are in a hurry or tired and just want them to do what we have asked.
Even so, we need to teach why.
“…parents in our society consistently fail to teach the moral or practical why of behavior. This results in children who are outwardly moral but not inwardly” (On Becoming Childwise, page 80).
So what is the big deal of teaching our children why? As the quote said above, children who don’t know why can act moral, but they don’t really understand morals. They can memorize a list of scenarios and what to do about them, but they cannot know for certain the right move when a scenario comes up that was not in training. Do you think your children will face moments you have not forseen? Unfortunately, I think that they will. We need to understand why we practice our moral beliefs in order to apply them across the board. Know the Why of Moral Training is precept number three.
The right answer is not always clear, even to adults. Our best bet is to understand our why behind our actions. Why do we share our toys? Why don’t we hit? Why are we honest? Why do we serve others? Why do we use titles when addressing people? Why do we say “yes mommy” when called?
Keep in mind that the standard age for understanding “why” is age three. However, Kaitlyn understood morals and why as a two year old, and McKenna is also starting to grasp morals as a two year old. Brayden was a couple of months shy of three before I started to see “why” click in him. You don’t want to teach over a child’s head, but you don’t want to avoid teaching his heart when he is ready for it.
For McKenna right now, when she asks me “why cause?” my answers are simple. “Because it would make Brayden sad if you broke his Lego creation.” “Ohhh. He be sad?” “Yes, he would be sad. Do you want him to be sad?” “No.” “That is why we don’t break Brayden’s things. We want to show him love.”
I am always drilling home showing love. I point out what shows people we love them. I think loving others and God is the root of eliciting moral behavior in us all (the first and second great commandments, after all).
For Brayden’s age group, we can have longer and deeper discussions. I want to teach why we do things, but also recognize why he chose to do something else. We get at his motivation for unkind behavior and talk about if it was okay or not and what he should do differently the next time he faces a similar situation.
Kaitlyn’s discussions land somewhere in the middle. She isn’t quite to the point of fully processing why she did certain things, but she can recognize certain emotions simply put (like she was mad, for example).
The next time you hear that sweet little voice throw out “Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?” your way, pause and think of why. Then explain it patiently on the appropriate level for your child. If you do this, you will start to see in your child the ability to discern correct behavior without you having to first give a lesson on it.
And we don’t always wait to hear “why” before we explain why. As I mentioned above, many times in correcting my children I provide why. It is also wise to provide why when we are giving an instruction. This is the practical side of life. Provide the why of practical training is moral precept number 4. Beat your children to the punch when giving an instruction. Instead of telling my children, “You can’t play on the grass today.” I say, “You need to stay off of the grass today because we had the lawn sprayed today.” “Don’t touch the wall because it has wet paint.” “Don’t jump around on the floor right now because McKenna is asleep and it wakes her up.”
Teaching these practicalities work when your children have been taught that other people count and when they understand the moral why behind their actions. Being quiet while McKenna is asleep shows respect for her (oh how I wish some of my college roommates had learned to show respect for the sleeping).
Explaining “Why” To Preschoolers
As your little toddler turns into your little preschooler, you will need to start changing some of your strategies when you correct, just as you did as you moved from babyhood to toddlerhood. One thing you will need to add to your bag of tricks is explaining why.
Now that your child is old enough to understand, why is very powerful for him. Why allows him to assign meaning to rules and apply this meaning to future actions. Why is an explanation of what he did, why it wasn’t okay, and what he should do instead. You are providing your child with knowledge, and knowledge is power!
For your preschooler, sometimes this explanatory process is the only “correction” that needs to happen when he does something wrong. You do, however, need to be sure that the explanation you give is age appropriate. There is an example used in On Becoming Preschoolwise of walking through a vegetable garden (page 159). They talk about teaching children to stay on the walking path and to stay off of the growing plants. They point out that a three year old won’t really understand a lecture on how long it takes your plant to recover after it has been trampled. He can, however, understand that he needs to stay on the path.
So impart knowledge, but do it on the level appropriate for your particular child. The term “preschooler” can apply to children through age three and four, so there is obviously a wide realm of understanding within this age group. As you start to explain why to your child, you will start to notice him connecting things and realize how to apply what he has learned to new situations.
Teaching your child the reason for moral and practical rules helps your child to better assess rules for herself when mom and dad aren’t around. The day will come when you aren’t there–whether as an adult, teenager, or child. The day will come when your child needs to decide for herself if an action is correct or not. Teach her the why and she will have the tools to do this with success.
- Moral Training: Love
- The Golden Rule (and the Platinum Rule)
- Other People Count
- It Starts With You
- Teach What is Right, Not Just What is Wrong
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