Children are notorious for asking a single question again and again: Why? I remember my own kids doing it when they were five or six years old.
“I have to go to work early in the morning, so I won’t see you when you wake up,” I told my son one day.
“Why?” he asked.
“I have an early meeting.”
“There was no other time we could both agree on,” I said. But I intuited there might be a deeper why question he couldn’t quite formulate. Why would you put him first, before me? “He is from out of town,” I answered, proactively. “So he has meetings all day, then he heads to the airport. And I know you like me here when you get up, so I always try to be around. Tomorrow, it just can’t happen.”
Why questions can be maddening, especially when they come rapid-fire from kids. But they are an important part of a child’s psychological development. Even at 3- or 4- or 5-years old, children already have a deep desire to make sense of the world—to burrow toward the truths that we adults too often gloss over. They instinctively seek the solid ground of understanding, of knowing that things “add up.” They have an inborn appetite for truth and they don’t yet know how to control it—like we do, for better, or—more likely—for worse.
I had a rule with my son and daughter, and I think it might have helped keep them intellectually curious about the world. I wouldn’t ever let myself lose the Why? tug-of-war. I would answer each of their why questions until they had run their course, and no more whys were forthcoming. I never gave that pat answer, “Because,” that would have shut down their line of inquiry—however frustrating it might have been. I never said, “Stop asking why!”
I think that we adults could take a cue from kids, in fact. Because we too often settle for ideas and for leaders who don’t really make sense. And if we were willing to ask “Why?” again and again, until we really felt satisfied that we understood and that we stood on the solid ground of truth, then we wouldn’t end up with people in our lives who coax us to be less than our best, social programs that don’t make sense and leaders who don’t have our best interests at heart.
Why would you say you love me when you are trying to talk me out of following my heart?
Why would you say we are friends when you only call to ask for favors, never to ask about my thoughts and feelings?
Why should I take a risk with this investment if the numbers don’t seem to add up to me?
Asking Why? again and again, until all reasonable doubt is erased from one’s mind, and one has a feeling of peace inside, is a psychological strategy for success. Kids know this, instinctively. We adults, in our flight to the false comfort of denial, too often forget it.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.