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


  1. So eloquently put.

    I think what you’re saying also applies to people in general, not just toddlers.

    Comment by Sheri | May 5, 2007 | Reply

  2. I agree with Sheri. It’s very much the same kind of logic as people in abusive situations use. That idea that the behaviour is because of some temporary thing, and will disappear once something happens, and we just have to ride it out.


    Comment by Haley | May 5, 2007 | Reply

  3. It’s kind of nice to be reading this when my son is still too young to mis-behave. I’ll keep it in mind!

    Comment by Sally | May 5, 2007 | Reply

  4. Mary, I am pretty sure I am the parent alluded to in this post. I believe I apologized for the ugliness that insued, and if not, I am doing so here. I was rude and ugly. Through the biting post I found you here and have been lurking ever since.

    I have experienced biting from almost all angles: I worked with toddlers, my daughter was a frequent bitee and my son sometimes bites me.

    As a parent and former preschool teacher with several college courses in child behavioral psychology under my belt. (Granted, I obtained my degree in 1998 and some of those psychologists were long dead and out of their loony minds while alive!) I still think if you can determine the reason for the action: he cannot communicate his needs effectively, he is teething, etc. . . . you can take measures to help overcome the unwanted behavior, such as working with him to learn how to communicate, or giving him something to chew on. No, this does not excuse or make acceptable the behavior, it does make it easier to determine how to better handle and/head off the offending behavior.

    I don’t think I ever claimed that the reason behind the action made it acceptable and it would just have to be tolerated. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter why and sometimes the why can be the key to ending the behavior. Just because a child is biting because he cannot effectively communicate does not mean there are no consequences for the biting until the child is no longer frustrated at his lack of comunication skills. That would be completely ridiculous and unfair to the person he is biting.

    Now, to the sleeping, I don’t really give a flying fig WHY the child never sleeps, I just want to get more than 3 hours of sleep each night!

    Skulking back under my rock in lurkdom now!

    Comment by Michelle | May 5, 2007 | Reply

  5. Mary, your post was spot-on. For kids AND for grownups! Even if someone feels the need to know WHY, there’s no reason they can’t deal with the why while simultaneously correcting the behavior.

    Comment by BookMama | May 5, 2007 | Reply

  6. What NOT why. That seems a damn handy rule.

    Yes. yes. yes. it is in the whyness that lies madness.

    Comment by mo-wo | May 6, 2007 | Reply

  7. Sheri: I think you’re right. I know it applies to teens. You wouldn’t BELIEVE what a girl-friend of mine puts up with from her 20-year-old daughter because “she’s PMS-ing”.

    Haley: Yup. ‘Why’ is a starting point for a response, not an excuse for the behaviour. (Ooo. And that summarizes my entire post in one line!)

    Sally: “…too young to misbehave.” Because you know he will, eventually! 🙂

    Michelle: …if you can determine the reason for the action. . . you can take measures to help overcome the unwanted behavior. No arguments from me! As I said, it’s a great starting point. It’s just not an end point.

    BookMama: Even if someone feels the need to know WHY, there’s no reason they can’t deal with the why while simultaneously correcting the behavior. Absolutely! It was not my intention, incidentally, to say we needn’t or shouldn’t look for a cause, only that we need to use the cause to deal with the behaviour, and that, if a reason is not evident, proceed anyway!

    mo-wo: “WHAT not why!” Nice summation! (Though sometimes ‘why’ does help with the ‘what next???’!)

    To all: The nice thing about blogging is that reader interaction points out weak spots in an argument, or places where you need to tighten your writing. If I to rework this for publication, I would spend more time expressing my belief that sometimes knowing why is very useful because it helps you strategize a response. I would firm up this as my starting point. I would spend more time on that idea than the brief paragraph at the beginning and the end it got in this post, so that people don’t get the mistaken impression I think wanting to know ‘why’ is foolish!

    I did say that knowing why is useful, and that it’s a good first response, but I said it only in passing – and that didn’t provide people time to absorb it, nor the requisite balance to the other half of my point.

    So, thanks!

    Comment by MaryP | May 6, 2007 | Reply

  8. Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou. I’ve recently become very stressed out by my inability to figure out the ways of some of my charges behavior, and it’s refreshing to be told that’s ok. It just feels so important while they are so young and I have these feelings that if I don’t do everything right now I’m going to screw them up for the future. If I let Liz refuse to eat because it’s not sweet potatoes she’ll become a terribly picky eater. If I don’t figure out why Rose starts screaming for no apparent reason and fix it she’ll start to distrust me. Your post was a breath of fresh air.

    Comment by Stephanie | May 6, 2007 | Reply

  9. Mary, you’ve already clarified that sometimes knowing why is important, but I still thought I’d add this comment. My son is three and a half and recently started throwing tantrums and generally freaking out about……well, just about everything. Our first response was to crack down. No more negotiating, many fewer chances before consequences, etc. This approach did not help. Then I came across “Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy” by Ames and Ilg. [Just an aside: What do you think of these books? I found this one very helpful.] According to Ames and Ilg an increase in tantrums and other wretched behavior is normal for 3 1/2 year olds. Not acceptable, but normal. However, our “crackdown” response was likely to backfire because 3 1/2 year olds are looking for a power struggle.

    Our new approach works much better. We try to dodge power struggles whenever possible. We race to the car, instead of demanding that he come by the count of 3. Hand washing can happen at the kitchen sink with mounds of dish soap bubbles, etc. If things get really awful, we walk away and he generally pulls himself together.

    I just thought this was a great example of how knowing “why” the behavior was happening really affected our choice of response. But, we aren’t trying to get a lot more specific than “He’s freaking out for no reason because he’s three and a half.”

    Comment by girlprof | May 6, 2007 | Reply

  10. Great post, and I think girlprof’s comments are a wonderful addition (rather than contradiction).

    If Maya is banging her fork, I take it away, rather than trying to analyze the reasons behind banging it. But, there’s a big difference between calmly telling her why the fork is going away, then firmly (but slowly) removing it and angrily grabbing the fork from her hands and. The former might leave her whiny. The latter WILL turn into a tantrum. I’m still trying to get through to my husband on this one, who doesn’t quite get the nuanced difference between the two. 🙂

    What also helps for me in the “kid feels powerless” phase (Maya is an overachiever, and is working that one at 2-1/2 instead of 3), is to give her frequent choices throughout the day — choices where I couldn’t possibly care less which choice she makes, LOL. Of course, then she vacillates between the two. That’s a whole ‘nother game!

    Comment by Allison | May 6, 2007 | Reply

  11. Stephanie: You’re welcome! While it’s often useful to know why, the reason is only the beginning of your response. And you can get on just fine without one, most times. What matters more is how you respond, and mostly, if you respond with respect, kind authority and affection, you won’t go too far wrong.

    girlprof: Well done! You tried one response, and when that didn’t work, you tried another, until you found a response that was effective. You made observations and responded to them, even without understanding why. (Because of course “X-year-olds tends to do Y” is not a reason, but rather an observation.)

    (It’s also, rather oddly, not something I observe in the children in my care, both my own and others’. Two is the year for tantrums, etc. Three is a nice little oasis of sociability and stability. Four, the power struggles may recommence(though less often than at two), until the child settles into that lovely 5 – 10 or 11 stage of cheerfulness.)

    These are generalizations, of course, borne of my own observations, those of my friends, and things I’ve read. They won’t apply to everyone.

    Allison: Well, yes. When you abruptly yoink the fork away, you’re not giving her the processing time she needs to accept and comply. In fact, what you’re doing is making a power grab. (Literally and figuratively.) The processing time shouldn’t be long minutes of coaxing and negotiating – but that’s not what you’re describing, just an extra 20 seconds to understand. Even when she’s ready to cooperate, her reflexes ARE that much slower than an adults, and the language is still pretty new to her. It’s only fair.

    Comment by MaryP | May 6, 2007 | Reply

  12. The serious points I was going to agree with have all been said so I’ll just say that I’m so glad to hear that it is OK to tell my child, You are one seriously weird little person…! (Of course, I end that with: “…and you probably get that from me! However, stop…”

    Comment by LoryKC | May 6, 2007 | Reply

  13. I don’t think this information should be focused on just toddler/preschooler behavior. Too often adult behavior is questioned, and then nothing is done about it.

    Comment by mamacita tina | May 6, 2007 | Reply

  14. Thank you, Mary. Another one to bookmark.

    I agree that one of the benefits of the blog format as room for input. Allison and your comment about the power “grab” with the spoon brings back an unfortunate memory of me grabbing when I should have been more patient. I’m doing a better job of watching my own food-intake levels these days, as I find I’m a better mom when I’m not hungry. :0

    Comment by Lady M | May 6, 2007 | Reply

  15. Lorykc: Ha! Too true. My son is horrifically absent-minded. It can be extremely frustrating. But then, my memory is awful – so the frustration I feel at his forgetfulness is only the exact same frustration I feel with my own. (But I will tell you: at 18, MY memory was much better than his. Poor kid…)

    MamacitaTina: You’re absolutely right. Psychology has been a huge enrichment of our understanding of people, and a great boon to the culture, BUT… people misuse it in this way All.The.Time. “I can’t help my bad temper. It’s because my father was abusive.” Hello? So you know the damage it can cause: make a choice not to pass the damage on to the next generation.

    LadyM: The blog format and its interaction. Isn’t it great? Some of the points people are responding to aren’t part of my original post at all – but they’re interesting, valid, and helpful. (And I’ve already modified the post to include an insight I got from my husband after discussing some of the points raised.) Great stuff.

    Comment by MaryP | May 7, 2007 | Reply

  16. Way to earn your Thinking Blogger stripes!

    Just want to add one pedantic point that I think is hovering behind your discussion, and that that causality when applied to human behavior is very different from causality when applied to the phenomena physicists and chemists deal with. That is, it’s not straightforward or deterministic. One of the points you make–that sometimes people seem to assume that if nothing can be done about a cause of a problem behavior, nothing can be done about the behavior–I think indicates people are making an unconscious assumption that causes of human behavior are like causes of, say, the behavior of rocks or water. Of course, if one points out that people aren’t rocks, the response is likely to be a mildly offended “Of course not!” But sometimes I’m not so sure we all grasp the difference when thinking about causality and influencing behavior.

    Comment by addofio | May 7, 2007 | Reply

  17. Yeah, I must admit I often just chalk sudden weird behaviours (or annoying, or whatever) to her trying something on.

    Pumpkinpie does tend to every couple of months take a week or two and try to make us crazy. She’ll give her very best to being defiant all of a sudden or, in the case of this week, whiny. Which means I spend a lot of time reminding her that this is not how we get our way around here.

    But why? Who the hell knows? I figure it’s what we parents like to refer to as “phases.” Where she’s got to try something on for size, and see if it works. She gets over it in a week or two (once three weeks – a LOOOOONG three weeks, but that was pretty unusual) and we can carry on and stop harping on using her words or ignoring her as she rolls around the floor.

    Comment by kittenpie | May 7, 2007 | Reply

  18. Addofio: Thank you! When I realized it had been all the way back in February that I wrote my last essay, I decided I’d better produce something.

    Re: causality in rocks and humans? I think you’re exactly right. My impression is that most of the confusion is, at most, semi-conscious. Few people would come right out and SAY that you can’t change behaviour if you can’t alter the cause, but more than a few ACT like that’s the case.

    Kittenpie: “Phases.” Quite right. The parental way of saying “She’s been doing this for a while now and I haven’t the faintest clue why”. “It’s a phase” sounds more aware and parentally clued-in than “what IS she on about these days?”, but really, it means about the same thing…

    “Ignoring her as she rolls around on the floor.” 🙂

    Comment by MaryP | May 7, 2007 | Reply

  19. Seriously, it’s posts like this that keep me coming back to your blog. I’ve noticed more and more that child-care providers often have the wisest views on parenting. Thanks for the insight!

    Comment by Julie | May 7, 2007 | Reply

  20. I am often asked “why is s/he doing that?” and the answer I incariably give is:

    “because s/he is two (or three or whatever)” sometimes I give a really good explanation:

    “because he is Mstr A”

    These are perfectly good reasons for doing whatever behaviour has confused a less understanding (read less laxy) parent:-)

    Comment by juggling mother | May 8, 2007 | Reply

  21. Mary,

    Thank you so much for sharing your insights. Just last night, our 21-month old, who usually loves her baths, started freaking out and wanted, “Uppy, uppy, uppy!” My husband just sighed and said, “Okay, my little weirdo.” I’m more of the why, why, why mindset, and my husband’s comment made me think of your post here – so thank you both!

    Comment by Peggy | May 10, 2007 | Reply

  22. […] Now, Daniel’s dad is satisfied with his interpretation. It bothered him that he didn’t know why, and now he does. Not that knowing why changes one single thing … except in dad’s head. With the reason firmly in hand, he feels competent to deal with the behaviour. […]

    Pingback by He knows why! Mebbe. « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | March 20, 2012 | Reply

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