Saturday, August 23, 2014

When Children Ask Why

This article first appeared in the September edition of Mother and Baby.

At three, the “what” questions started. “What is this called? What does this do?” he would ask, pointing to some obscure part of an electrical appliance, like the piece that holds in place the blades of a standing fan.

The dreaded “why” questions started a few months later. Suddenly, my usual fallback of “I don’t know” was met with the retort “Why don’t you know?” and “Why don’t you ask your phone?”

It is very tempting as parents to brush off our children when they are asking difficult or time-consuming questions. We live in a world where our children compete with work, phone, email, Facebook, television, and numerous other people and devices for our limited time and attention. No wonder we dread answering the “why” questions, which are not just factual in nature, but require the investment of a great deal of time. And you don’t know if the child can really understand it anyway.

In How Will You Measure Your Life (available as a book, HBR article, TedX video), terminally-ill Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen points out that most people do not consummate a marriage or start a business with the intention of divorce or bankruptcy, yet many end in that. He attributes this to our tendency to focus on short-term benefits at the expense of long term ones. Spending time with our families, he explains, is a long-term investment that you may not see returns on for years. So it is much more satisfying to focus on immediate gratification, like completing the project at work, or reaching that new level in Candy Crush. However, if we don’t invest sufficient time in our families, we will fail them. For me, part of this investment in my children is answering their questions.

A recent discussion with other fathers in my bible study group gave me a deeper appreciation of the value of “why”. As we discussed the challenges of disciplining our children, we all agreed that it was easy to punish the symptoms of bad behaviour. The real challenge was changing the child’s heart, and this requires conversations about “why” they should behave in certain ways.

The hardest question arose when Ethan and I went walking around MacRitchie Reservoir. During that trip, we watched a 20-kg monitor lizard feasting on a nest of someone else’s eggs from less than 5m away, and Ethan was almost attacked by a monkey. But the thing that stuck in his young mind was the big slab of concrete that we chanced upon on top of a hill– a memorial to Lim Bo Seng, whom I simplified for him as the war hero.

“Daddy, why did the Japanese kill the war hero?” This became Ethan’s favourite question, and he asked it repeatedly for the next month. I never found a good answer, but I kept trying, because this was important to me, and I wanted him to understand.

"Why did he fight the Japanese?" How do you explain concepts of invasion, patriotism and heroism to a four-year-old? I asked him what he would do if bad people came to take away our home. "Lock the door," he said But what if they break down the door—would you run away? He nodded. It seemed the obvious choice. Would you let them live in our home, then your mother and sister would have nowhere to live? He thought about it. “Why did the Japanese want to take Singapore?”

One day he will have to serve National Service, and I want him to understand why long before that. So how do you explain to a four-year-old what another world could be like, a world where we do not have a country to call our own home. A world where we wonder not what to eat, but whether we will eat; where school is a privilege and not a chore. These are the difficult questions; questions so far beyond the experience of their young minds, and yet this our chance to prepare them.

Right and wrong. Religion. Patriotism. The best way to impart our beliefs and values to our children is to answer their questions now, because one day they will go elsewhere for answers.


One afternoon I was researching a post I was writing for my blog, and Ethan was back again with his favourite question. Mummy took pity on me and called him over. “What’s your question?” she asked him. I pricked up my ears in interest. How was she going to answer this one?

“We don’t know why they killed him. God told us to love other people, not kill them. But the Japanese were disobedient,” she explained to him. Ethan was satisfied. Mummy knows everything; he hasn’t asked the question since.

A moment later, he was back at my side. “What are you reading, Daddy?” “I’m reading about two men who exploded a bomb in Singapore and killed some people,” I replied, but I knew what was coming next.

“Why did they do that?”