Saturday, July 3, 2010

because I said so

I found myself saying these four words the other day to my son. I wanted him to wear shoes at the skate park on a wintery day, and he said, “Why?”

“Because I said so,” came flying out. About one second later, I told him my reasons. Explaining took a bit longer, but made me feel better. You'd have to ask my son if it made him feel better, but I hope it did.

Anyway, those four words got me thinking.

We want our kids to do what we ask them to, right? Because we usually ask these things to keep our children safe, healthy, and secure. Like, “Look both ways when you cross the road.” And “Take your hand out of the tiger's cage.” And “Don't eat that cookie (ie: the one you just found in the rubbish bin at the park).”

We assume our kids will understand Why we're asking these things—because it's common sense. But our kids haven't had the years to build this curious thing called Common Sense. They want to know why because Everything is endlessly fascinating. Reasons for rules are far more interesting and satisfying than the rules themselves. Rules are boring. They come with a whole lot of Don'ts and Dos and not a whole lot of “If you don't mind”s,” “Please”s, and “Because”s. But without those, kids are just thrust into the rules without real comprehension or a sense of control over their own actions.

When you don't explain, you can take away a kid's autonomy. They're being asked to obey blindly, and this can make them resentful, confused, and maybe a bit boring too? If you're asking a kid to obey without question, then perhaps you're creating a child who won't question bigger things, like Why are the stars, and Who am I, and What can I build/create/think of today that is special, my own?

On the other hand. And there is another side to the argument, of course! I'm not just a dreamer; I am, in fact, sometimes a realist.

You want them to listen and do what you ask because in an emergency, you'd like it if they did what you told them to. Like “Stop, Timmy!” when little Timmy's running into the path of a dozen shiny-legged cyclists, or “Don't, Timmy!” when the little guy's about to pick up a red-hot coal from the fire.

You want them to respect you as a parent, and trust that you have their best interests at heart. You hope that they'll go, “Okay,” and know they're thinking, “because you're my mum/dad and you must know what's good for me.”

You also may not have time to explain. You might have a split second chance for them to do as you ask before they get hurt. You don't exactly have time to say, “Stop, Timmy, you're about to run into a whole world of hurt! In the form of 20 cyclists training for the Tour de France perhaps, or just on a social ride! And if you do run into them, chaos will probably ensue! No-one will win from this situation! It's dire, I tell you, dire!”

You just want Timmy not to run into danger. It's that simple.

You might also be tired. You might feel sick. You might be just wiped out, from parenting, from work, from life. You might just want a break from the relentless, “Why? Why, mummy, Why?” You know those days, those Whys. They're a killer.

You might simply be asking, just this once, for a little break. You might want to say, “Because I said so,” and have it all be taken care of. A little kindness, your kids nodding, understanding that's the only answer you have inside you at this moment, and doing as you ask.

But if it's not one of those days, or even if it is… perhaps Why isn't impossible?

It may not take that long to explain, actually. Often the reasons are pretty simple. Or they're not, and it takes explaining them to understand why you're asking it yourself. And sometimes, explaining makes you realise you don't actually need them to do the thing you've asked after all.

But I really did want my son to wear his shoes. It was cold! Scooters were careening past at high speed! I wanted him safe and I wanted him warm, and I told him so, respectfully. And he listened, respectfully, and put his shoes back on.


  1. A lovely post. :)
    You had me thinking on another repercussion when the questions aren't allowed. What sort of teens/adults do we want to have our children become? Inviting reason and taking to time to explain (at the appropriate moment) nurtures thinkers, and this is important! In fact, I wonder if it's become a lost art for many because they've always heard "Because I said so!"

  2. A great post. Humor and sound strategy and a lot to reflect on. I'm a big believer in honesty and directness with kids. This morning Little J asked me why I wasn't going to the Fourth of July Picnic. I said, "Well, you know how I have cancer?" He said, "Yes." And you know I get medicine for it, and it's making the cancer go away?" And he said, "Yes." Well, the medicine makes me feel a little sick for a few days before it starts making me better." "OK. Where did we get this ladder?" he asked, distracting himself a bit, reminding me of his limit. "The hardware store, honey. I love you." Kids deserve honest explanations. What they do with them, we don't know. But like you said, it's the best way to build trust with them and to remind them that we're here to protect them, and honor them.


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