Your Child’s Four Least-Favorite Words
I saw the look on my granddaughter’s face when I asked her to perform an unexpected, undesired task. It’s the same slit-eyed stare my mother saw a thousand times before the one-word challenge—“Why?”—tumbled from my lips, my hands on my hips.
Mama’s retort was as rapid, “Because I said so.”
Sting! Those words would course through my whole being like an electric current. I vowed each time I heard them I would never, no, not ever, say them to my children.
Fallible creature that I am, I did. Many times with my sons, but those memories are not riveted in my consciousness as my recent spontaneous lapse with my granddaughter.
Her stare and “Why?” elicited those all-too-familiar, least favorite words. “Because I said so.”
Uncharacteristic of my typical, laid-back grandmothering style, their utterance took her aback as much as it did me. I was pretty stunned and wanted to lasso the words back into my mouth, but I couldn’t. They were gone. The damage done. I was all too human in the moment, frustrated to complete some task before going out the door.
Let’s be honest. They’re more than “least favorite” words; they’re hated. “Because I said so” (BISS). Rarely, if ever, do they produce the desired outcome and often unnecessarily escalate an otherwise neutral situation into a battle of wills.
We ended up doing the task together, more or less. Me, more; her less. Not very happily.
I thought this could—and should—have been different, like the times (never enough!) I managed to pause a hot second before speaking. In those golden moments, my heart and mind empathized with my child long enough to see the situation from their vantage point and apply adult, godly wisdom to it.
So, what might be their vantage points? I want to focus on three of multiple possibilities: lack of understanding, inability to complete the task, and willfulness.
- Lack of understanding
Lack of understanding falls into two categories. First, the child may not comprehend the request. Instructions may be unclear, too complicated or vague for him to act on. Secondly, the child may not view as important or relevant the requested action. What meaning does it hold for him?
The initial clue a child lacks either form or understanding is a blank, deer-in-the-headlights stare. I see it frequently in classrooms and at sports practice as well as at home. You’re teaching or coaching away, giving instructions, expecting action, and getting none.
A prime culprit is instructions given too quickly for the child to process. The words sound like gobbledegook; the child literally cannot understand what’s being asked. She may freeze, a befuddled look on her face. In public, most children won’t question authority, and the authority is unaware of the child’s problem, nor has time to explore it. So, the teacher or coach moves on.
Not so at home. In your home with its level of security, crying, yelling, running away, and slamming doors often follow the Why? / because-I-said-so (BISS) scenario. A request like “sort and fold the socks, underwear, and t-shirts” can trigger an unintended and unexpected outcome.
A child with an auditory processing problem may hear only two words accurately and get flustered. To defuse the situation, say something like, “That was a lot to ask you to do. Start with putting the t-shirts in one pile. Let me know when you’re finished.”
For many people, children and adults, knowing the why behind a request is a legitimate question. For those who need the answer (like me), provide information instead of BISS. You’ll be surprised at the result.
In the sort-and-fold scenario, answer the why with a reason. Smile and say, “That’s a good question. It’s because we know where to find clothes when we need them. And with your excellent help, we’ll finish household chores quicker and go to the park.” You might get an attitude at first, but it’s better than an argument. It’s a step in the right direction.
- Inability to do the task
Think about it. Are there things you really can’t do no matter how hard you try? Honestly, sweeping the floor well has always challenged me. And I’ve never been a good seamstress. Don’t know why. No matter how hard I try, my skill level never passes muster.
We all have limitations. If your child continually balks or does a really bad job at a particular task, don’t wait for him to ask why he has to do it. Consider if there’s a real problem like lack of hand-eye coordination. Doing tasks that require it are frustrating and tedious.
Also consider if she received sufficient instruction and practice to learn the task. If a child has a memory problem, simple tasks require repetition and oversight.
It’s hard to discern whether a child has a problem following instructions or whether it’s the “sin nature” rearing its ugly head. Oh, the descriptors of willfulness: obstinate, defiant, intransient, challenging, disobedient. I hear my three-year-old grandson wags his finger at his dad when he doesn’t want to do something! Oh, for shame!
As parents, the Lord gives us commandments about discipling our children. Learning to follow directions without arguments and attitudes (first-time obedience) is a large part of godly discipline. Much too much for one blog!
So, what are we to do?
We apply adult, godly wisdom.
First, listen to the unspoken words your child broadcasts when they ask “Why?” to your request. We must listen not only with our ears but also with our heart. Is there another layer of meaning behind their words and actions they do not understand nor have the ability to express?
Second, be reasonable and approachable. Not authoritarian or dictatorial. We will damage our child’s heart and spirit if we demand without explanation.
Third, be honest. It’s the Golden Rule in action. If you ask or act irrationally or unreasonably, tell your child. That will help him if your BISS hurt or upset him. It will lead to repentance and forgiveness.
Over time, your child will begin to see and experience the benefits of discipline and welcome it when it’s administered without confrontational Why? / BISS exchanges. In fact, children will one day appreciate it as good and profitable. After all, Proverbs 12:1 says, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid” (ESV).
Stupid! A strong word we do not want applied to our children. Avoiding Why? / BISS exchanges invites our children to welcome discipline rather than bristle and resist it. In the long run, they will embrace discipline as the solid path to the knowledge needed to explore every part of God’s wondrous world that their heart and mind desires.
Educational psychologist Dr. Brenda Murphy lives out her mission to Serve All In Love by sharing her deep knowledge of the art and science of teaching through professional development, personal consultation, and mentorship. She encourages all teachers, parents, and students to experience new possibilities through her belief that they each possess undiscovered gifts and talents. Find out more about Dr. Brenda and how she helps parents like you at www.sailawaylearning.com.