It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Why, why, why

Nope, not Noah. Though he is in the fullest of full throes of the Why Stage. (Tyler, thank heavens, appears to be skipping it.)

What got me thinking of this is Liz’s comment on my previous post, about the grandmother who thinks that it’s beyond a three-year-old child’s capabilities to say ‘please’… because he doesn’t understand it, you see.

Now, I think we can all agree that grandma is a few bricks short of a load here, but that’s not what really caught my attention. What really struck me was that notion of understanding why.

We waste a lot of time, cause ourselves no end of angst, and respond in some very ineffectual ways to parenting challenges, all because of that need to know why.

Why is she refusing to eat her beans?
Why won’t he say please?
Why is he hitting the other children?
Why is she throwing so many tantrums this week?
Why won’t she sleep through the night?

Let me be clear here: Sometimes knowing why is useful. Sometimes it’s essential. But you know what? Most of the time, it’s just not. For most of the every-day, run-of-the-mill, here-we-go-again parenting challenges?

The “why” doesn’t matter.

Because most of the time, knowing why is not going to change the expectation. You think the sudden aggression is caused by the new baby at home? The aggression still has to stop. His refusal to wear boots in the snow is because he doesn’t like his feet to be constrained? You’re not going to let him go barefoot in the snow.

And a lot of the time, not only does the ‘why’ not matter, it doesn’t even help. Her frequent night wakings are caused by the new developmental skill she’s learning? Um, so? (This is one I’m quite dubious about, btw. They’re always learning something, so it’s an easy catch-all for any mysterious sleep disruption. And in the end… um, so?)

We expend so much time, we waste so much parental energy agonizing over and hunting for the ‘why’ of our child’s quirks and misbehaviours. It would be nice to tie up loose ends with a full and complete understanding… but most of the time, it just isn’t necessary. If you could give up your need to know why, and just respond to the behaviours at face value, you’d save yourself no end of anxiety.

And to take it the next step, and apply our adult need to know to our child, and conclude that until a child understands WHY something must happen, they can’t be expected to DO it?

That’s just stupid.

April 22, 2010 - Posted by | parenting


  1. My mom’s policy was always, ‘you’ll understand later. put on your jacket or you cant go.’

    Comment by Em | April 22, 2010 | Reply

  2. Or more accurately,”you’ll understand when you’re older, put it on or stay here” .

    Tidy choice! Gets you neatly out of the endless loop of having to convince your child of the rightness of your decision and win their compliance.

    Comment by Em | April 22, 2010 | Reply

  3. Perfect post.
    We had been agonizing over our 4 year old’s sudden descent into angry bad behavior and what was causing it. I still would like to know the reason, if only to reassure him that all of our recent changes will not be continuing forever. BUT that does not change our expectations of him. You may be freaked out by moving. You may be annoyed that your sister is now old enough to get in your way. You may have a stubborn streak and not know how to manage your anger. I’ll be damned if you take it out on your teachers and friends without repercussions. We have expectations. Occasionally we expect too much but for the most part we’re on par with everyone else. I expect my child to be polite and to TRY at least to make good choices. I expect him to make me proud, and for the most part he does.

    And I’m sure you talk to him about all the changes, and how he might feel. But, bottom line (and this is SUCH a mantra for me), “You may be [insert negative feeling here] but you may not [insert negative behaviour here].” It’s a basic expectation, and hard for humans to apply, so you have to start young!

    Comment by Dani | April 22, 2010 | Reply

  4. Oh, totally agree with this post. And I’m someone who has surely wasted too much time and energy trying to figure out why one of our children was doing something or other. I am finding that this problem is much less of an issue (for me) with our second child. Our son was more baffling with various annoying behaviors, and as a new parent, I did want to know what was going on and why. With our daughter, I understand that the answer to why (regardless of the question), is often “because she’s two” and that’s reason enough.

    “Because she’s two.” Exactly! We have a saying around here, “He’s being very TWO today,” and everyone knows exactly what we mean. And while it’s perfectly developmentally normal for a two-year-old to behave like a two-year-old, the job of parents is to mold and shape them into tolerable three-year-olds, and four, and, eventually, adults.

    Comment by Sarah | April 22, 2010 | Reply

  5. Brilliant post!

    Aw, gee, thanks.

    Comment by Cindy C | April 22, 2010 | Reply

  6. And for adults too — it doesn’t matter why my sister wants to scream at me. Screaming gets you my absence.

    I am always amazed when adults indulge in the more outrageous toddler responses — shouting, throwing things, having tantrums. Don’t they get embarrassed by themselves? Your response sounds absolutely appropriate. You can’t control her behaviour, but you sure can prevent her from inflicting it on you.

    Comment by Helen Huntingdon | April 22, 2010 | Reply

  7. YES!!! I wish someone would tell every new parent this.

    I spent a lot of time in my son’s first years trying to figure out the why, trying to place some reasonable logical explanation on his behaviour…why he woke up six times a night at 2 years old, why he was biting at 18 months, why as a newborn, he would have a perfect day of sleep one day and a terrible one the next day, even if I did exactly the same thing both days! There is no WHY with children, there just IS.

    I could have saved myself a lot of worry, heartache and LOTS OF LOST SLEEP if I had just dealt with the result of his behaviour instead of trying to locate the cause. I think its two-fold, we want to UNDERSTAND our children, and we feel like if we can give an explanation, then the behaviour isn’t our fault, or is beyond our control.

    Wanting to understand is normal. It gives us a feeling of control, it makes these weird things less mysterious… but it rarely absolves us of responsibility to deal with the weirdnesses. I believe it can take a huge weight of worried parental shoulders, though, when we can say, “Who knows why? Question is, how will I respond?”

    As Trish pointed out, sometimes knowing why is useful and helpful, but in the vast majority of cases, it really isn’t, and agonizing over the why generally makes you feel worse, not better… because if you can’t figure out WHY, you must be an incompetent parent, right? No, not right. Thank goodness!

    Comment by Tammy | April 22, 2010 | Reply

  8. Amen! Preach it!

    Thank you! πŸ˜€

    Comment by Liz C. | April 22, 2010 | Reply

  9. This was brilliant. You are so right, and cut straight to the heart of why (haha) there are so many parents out there who don’t seem to think they can expect their children to behave a certain way. They think the reason why the are not behaving is a valid excuse.

    I KNOW, and that drives me mad! “She’s screaming and hitting because we were at gramma’s this weekend and her schedule’s off” … and somehow this translates into the screaming and hitting is appropriate? Bizarre… The reason is not (necessarily) justification. Knowing the reason doesn’t mean you don’t have to deal with the behaviour.

    Comment by carrien (she laughs at the days) | April 22, 2010 | Reply

  10. well, I agree and I don’t. Sometimes the obnoxious refusal to put on shoes is because the feet grew when I wasn’t looking and the shoes hurt now. So in that case knowing why is rather important.

    Mostly you’re right, though. Don’t care WHY you’re biting; we DON’T BITE.

    We’re in complete agreement, then. As I said in the post, “Sometimes knowing why is useful. Sometimes it’s essential.” But mostly, it doesn’t matter.

    Comment by Trish C | April 22, 2010 | Reply

  11. Incidentally, this is an interesting perspective on lots of things in life. We spend a lot of time asking why, looking for root causes, rather than doing something about the effects. Maybe it’s difficult to judge when it’s the causes that need changed, and when the effects. Especially when the issue is complex.

    Comment by cartside | April 23, 2010 | Reply

  12. We have a saying around here, β€œHe’s being very TWO today,”

    HA! I just asked Christopher yesterday if he was “feeling 13” and that’s why he was acting the way he was. His answer, “Yeah. I’m just really feeling 13 today. It’s been a hard day.”

    And things were instantly better. He appreciated that I understood.

    These teenage years? Might just kill me!

    Comment by Candace | April 23, 2010 | Reply

  13. […] Dad (more than Mum, in this case) has been wondering why this sudden demand. I’ve proffered a few likely possibilities, noting that whatever triggered it three weeks ago is quite probably not what’s continuing the pattern now, anyway, and summing up with my ongoing mantra: You’ll probably never know for sure, and it almost certainly doesn’t matter. […]

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

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