Tell Them Why: Giving Rationales

The reason young children do the things they do is because they are just that - young children. They have not developed the ability to think things through, understand cause-and-effect relationships, or quickly learn from past mistakes. They are naturally self-centered and socially inexperienced. Many of the lessons they learn take a lot of trial and error. That's the bad news.

The good news is that there is something you can do that will help your children learn new skills and make good choices. Look at the following list of questions. They all start with the word "why."

Why won't my children do what I want them to do more often?
Why don't my children understand that their behavior affects others?
Why doesn't my child seem to know the benefits of doings things the right way?

As the parent of a young child, you have probably asked yourself these questions and others like them.

Giving reasons is the key to helping children understand what we are teaching them. Young children want and need to know why. They need to understand why things do and do not happen. They need to know how their behavior affects themselves and others. They need to know why some choices are better than others. Learning these connections helps children understand why they should do some things and not do others. To help children understand these "whys," parents must give reasons.

Here are a few thoughts on using reasons with your children:

  • Use kid reasons - There are many types of reasons that can be used with young children, but the ones that seem to work best are those that are important to them. So, whenever possible, use reasons that will show your children how their behavior affects them.
  • Use reasons often - You may need to use a reason several times in similar situations before your child begins to understand. Over time, though, your persistence and patience will help your children learn how their behavior affects what happens to them.
  • Be brief - The attention span of young children can be very short, so the reasons you use need to be just as short.
  • Be real - Even though children are young, they learn very quickly what is likely to happen and what is not. Make sure you use reasons that point out realistic outcomes of their behavior.
  • Focus on the positive - While it is true that unpleasant things can result when children misbehave, we don't want kids to always be motivated by the fear of bad things happening. Rather, we want them to be motivated by the positive things that result from doing things well. So, use reasons that show your children how they and others benefit from doing something well.

Reasons are wonderful tools to use with all children, regardless of age. Reasons teach children how the world works by telling them what is likely to happen as a result of their behavior. These are important lessons for children to learn. Although children understand reasons better as they get older, there is evidence that reasons are effective with children as young as 3 years old. So get in the habit of giving reasons when you teach. Both you and your children will benefit.

Excerpted from the Boys Town book, Common Sense Parenting of Toddlers and Preschoolers.