Parenting Hack: Why vs. When

Every once in a while I come across a simple adjustment in my parenting that makes a big difference. The last one I shared with you was “The Knowledge Question” way back in February. So, it appears as though these epiphanies are few and far between. But you know what? Parenting is hard and I’ll take it when it comes. Here’s the latest one I discovered.

I’ll give you a scenario to help frame the strategy. Your four-year-old has decided he can pour his own milk into the cereal bowl. On a counter level with his eyeballs. From the full gallon of milk you just purchased from the store. You arrive just as the laws of physics make the gallon too heavy, the reach too high, and the over-full bowl of cereal soaked in milk go crashing to the floor. Little mister looks up at you. What do you do?

Anne Rulo Parenting Hack: Why vs. When

I’ll be candid. In this scenario, or any other that involves childhood disaster, I have both exceled and failed many times over. Handling it well is usually tied to whether I am tired or not, which is a dicey thing to rely on when you are parenting. When I am doing well I parent well, offer comfort, encourage learning through mistakes, etc. When I am wrung out I get frustrated, shame, and ask “why” they did what they did. Obviously, one strategy empowers my kid and makes me feel like a hero. The other shames/shuts down my kid and makes me feel like junk. I recognized that I needed a simple cue that would help me respond appropriately even if I was totally worn out or emotionally heightened.

Like many learning opportunities, it was from studying my “failures” that a clue for the solution popped out. When I handled the situation poorly, I noticed that my sentences started with “why”. I mean, I said why a lot. But, when I handled them well, I started sentences with “when”. So, what’s going on there?

“Why did you put the cereal bowl up so high?” “Why didn’t you ask for Mommy’s help?” “Why did you fill it up so much?” “Why didn’t you wait?”

Why. When we start with why, what we are actually starting with is judgment. We’re not really asking for information. Instead, we are offering an assessment that what the other person chose to do was not just wrong, it was…well, dumb. Using why in this way activates the emotional part of our brains where we scramble for control and are much more likely to bypass kindness to make ourselves feel better.

“When you put the cereal bowl up high, it is hard to reach. Let’s try the table next time.”
“When you are little it’s hard to do some things. Let’s ask Mommy for help next time.”
“When the cereal is so high, it is easier to overflow the bowl. Can you put less in next time?”

When. Now, I am sure there are ways to mess up this up too, but it is much harder. The reason for this is starting with “when” activates the logical part of our brain. The calmer part of our brain. It is harder to stay emotionally keyed up when we have to think through what comes after “when” because what comes after “when” is more likely to be instruction or education. Starting with “when” is a way to focus on a sequence of events rather than the judgment of why and thus space ourselves out from the emotion of the moment.

Okay. I know we talked about parenting today, and I hope it is helpful. But just as an aside, I suspect why vs. when may also be helpful in our grown up lives as well. It is hard to be kind when we are judging. I guess that’s probably a good part of why God asks us not to do it.

Let’s be when people over why people to be kind people. Learning is always a better option than shame. Much love to you all.

Photo by Andriyko Podilnyk on Unsplash used with permission

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