It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Why, why, why

(Updated: small inclusion in paragraph 13)

Nope, not your three-year-old’s unending ‘why’s’ – yours! Why is he waking again? Why is she throwing tantrums? Why has he suddenly decided never to eat vegetables? Why won’t she go to bed? Why is he biting? Why won’t she talk to her grandparents? Why does he insist on wearing boots over his slippers?

I certainly understand this yearning for explanation. When I was a young mother, I always wanted to know the reason. I’m an intelligent, rational woman, and I wanted to treat my children with intelligence and reason. I’d spend hours observing, analysing, trying to understand, only to too-often feel I was bashing my head against the inalterable inexplicable-ness of my child’s behaviour. AGH!

You know what? The longer I work with small children, the less I worry about ‘why’.

Now, sometimes knowing why is very useful. A previously toilet-trained child starts piddling all over the house. If you know the child has a bladder infection, you will respond very differently than if the behaviour is rooted in defiance and attention-seeking. So, when an odd behaviour occurs, you look for obvious possible causes. It’s a good starting place.

And when you’ve eliminated the obvious, then what? This is where many parents start to flounder. They believe they must have a ‘why’, they must discover a reason. Good parents understand their children, right? If an explanation isn’t apparent, they flail about with increasing feelings of helplessness, and worse, incompetence.

Sadly, we often think that without that all-important ‘why’, we can’t act. Sometimes, we just find one, kind of make it up. Then we arbitrarily slap the ‘why’ on to the behaviour, even if it’s far-fetched or doesn’t exactly fit, and breathe a sigh of relief, because – and here’s where the hunt for the ‘why’ starts to backfire – we think the ‘why’ excuses the behaviour.

Here’s a classic example: a child, two years old, starts to bite his/her playmates. (Statistically, somewhat more likely to be a boy.) It’s common parental wisdom that a prime reason for biting is the child’s frustration at not being able to communicate. So, a behaviour and a probable cause. Good start. Then what happens?

On a parenting forum, I once stated that biting can generally be eliminated in three weeks. A parent took strong (and eventually aggressive and insulting) exception to this. “A child isn’t going to become a fluent communicator in three weeks!” she fumed.

Well, no. Of course not. Who said he would? I said only that the behaviour could be eliminated in that time.

But in her mind she was making an ubiquitous parenting error. She assumed that the reason for the behaviour excused it; moreover, she believed that until the underlying cause (poor communication skills) is resolved, the presenting behaviour (biting) is intractable, completely untouchable, beyond resolution.

Well, this just ain’t so. What, we’re supposed to resign ourselves to six, eight, ten months of biting? And then, simply because the child can now speak fluently, we’re to believe that this now firmly entrenched behaviour will magically disappear? The notion is patently ridiculous, and yet so many act as if cause excuses behaviour, with no possibility of intervention.

We do this on so many fronts. A previous sound sleeper starts waking in the night. “Oh, it’s because he’s xxx old.” [Insert number of choice here. There seem to be about a million ‘vulnerable’ phases for sleep.] A three-year-old starts throwing food at the table. “It’s because she’s upset that her dad has been travelling so much the past month.” A little darling begins beating on his younger sibling. “It’s jealousy.” A four-year-old tortures the family dog. “He’s stressed out because he just started school.”

Some of those reasons may be sound, others may be fatuous. Some of them are not “reasons” at all: X-year-olds tend to do Y” is an observation not a reason, but, in our desperate search for the why, why, why, we take it. But you know what? IT DOESN’T MATTER. We don’t get to throw food or hit people or abuse family pets, no matter what. A child who has slept well before can be expected to resume good sleep in short order. The ‘why’ may give you an insight in how to proceed, but it’s a beginning, not an end. It does not make the behaviour okay. It does not mean you just have to put up with it until the child, isn’t stressed, isn’t missing her daddy, isn’t feeling jealous.

So, is your child doing some odd thing, and you haven’t the faintest idea why? Has your child suddenly started a negative behaviour, or stopped a positive one, seemingly out of the blue? Have you tried everything you can to figure out why, and have come up empty? Or do you know what the ‘why’ is, but it is completely outside your power to alter or affect it in any way? Are you feeling helpless, incompetent, with no idea what to do next? Here’s a two-step plan:

Step one: never mind why.
Step two: deal with the presenting behaviour.

Now, step two is almost certainly easier said than done. Step two probably has many smaller steps within it, and will take thought, persistence, and creativity on your part. I’m not saying step two is easy! I am saying you don’t have to know ‘why’ to be effective. I am saying, after eliminating the obvious, you can skip step one.

Sometimes a lengthy search for a reason paralyses us. Sometimes it reduces our effectiveness as parents, and can even muddy the waters. Sometime you just don’t need a reason. You just need to act. The behaviour is clear. Its effects are clear. Deal with what’s clear.

Sometimes it’s enough to look at your child and say (with greatest love and affection), “You are one seriously weird little person. And, no, you can’t bite the dog’s nose any more.”

May 5, 2007 Posted by | parenting | 22 Comments