As a parent of a 25-year-old, I now cringe at how many times I must have used the sentence, “Why did you do that?” over the years. While working with children for the past two decades, I have come to realize it is one of the worst sentences ever! Sentences like this one can cause unintentional shame and negative results.

Parents understandably need to learn why their child did something. Unfortunately, certain words can set your children up to be defensive and protective of themselves. None of us are thrilled when a spouse or a boss comes to us and asks, “Why did you do that?“. My feeling of defensiveness is aroused even as I type the sentence! Is there a way to word a “why” question without using the words “why”, “you” and “that”? There is. I know, the initial reaction might be, “How in the world is that accomplished?” It has been more than a 2-year journey for me to change my language and use words that invite honest and calm conversation. I hope to make the journey a little shorter for you.

The word “why” can be surprisingly unhelpful when getting to the truth. It usually undermines the conversation because the person we are talking to becomes defensive and will take a combative stance. Two undesirable scenarios commonly happen when a child is confronted with a “why” question:

  1. Lying. In my experience, children are prone to tell parents what they want to hear, so they may choose to lie if it seems to suit the parent.
  2. Defensiveness. Another scenario may be that defensiveness kicks in and a tantrum follows.

Careful wording will help minimize the chance of either scenario and allow for calm and honest interaction.

Now, let’s consider the word “you”. This word speaks to identity. If we are not careful, the external negative “you” statements will become internal negative “I am” statements. Conversely, positive external “you” statements can become positive internal “I am” statements. Let’s explore the statement, “You are being lazy when you don’t clean your room.”

Heard enough times, your child may internalize the statement as “I am a lazy person” and lose the desire to improve their behavior. Leaving out the word “you” will allow the conversation to point to a behavior needing change and not point to a child’s identity.

Finally, let’s delve into the word “that,” which is undefined and overly insinuated. When you ask, “Why did you do that” your child may not be focused on the same issue you are, and this may cause confusion. Also, it feels yucky. Think about how it feels when someone says to you, “Are you going to wear that?” Ugh! It is not helpful to leave your child guessing about what you want them to do and have them feeling unintentional shame. Stating specifically what the “that” is will bring clarity to the conversation.
Now that you understand the power within each individual word, here are two statements to start practicing. Instead of using, “Why did you do that?”, use “Help me understand what is up with ______________.” Or “Help me understand what was up with _______________.” Fill in the blank with a specific behavior instead of the word “that.” For example: “Help me understand what is up with not wanting to get dressed.” Or: “Help me understand what was up with arguing with your Mom this morning.” It will take intentionality to make this type of wording come naturally, but I promise the results are very much worth it.

In the area of calm and honest conversation, you’re about to start winning!

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