Why Parents and Teachers should never ask “Why”

“Why” robs children and adolescents of their responsibility. Consider the following “Why” questions: 

“Why didn’t you do your homework?”

“Why haven’t you cleaned your room?”

Now, let’s see how such a common type of question leads to irresponsible behavior: 

Why didn’t you do your homework? 

I had practice after school, and then I had to go to my music lesson, and then my Mom got called into work, and I had to babysit my little brother. I just didn’t have time.

Why haven’t you cleaned your room?

I’m going to do it. It’s just that I was really tired and fell asleep

Notice the answer in each case—do we really want an excuse?

And it usually gets worse. Let’s take these conversations further and see where each goes:

Why didn’t you do your homework?

I had practice after school, and then I had to go to my ….

I gave this assignment last week. You’ve had plenty of time to do it if you had planned. 

This isn’t the first time you’ve missed an assignment, and If it keeps happening, you’re going to fail.

I know and I’m sorry. Can I have one more day?  I know I can get it done if I have just a little more time.

Now the teacher can say no (then probably deal with an angry parent or administrator), or the teacher can dodge a potential bullet and give one more day thus “telling” the student he really isn’t responsible for turning work in on time.

Why haven’t you cleaned your room?                                

I’m going to do it. It’s just that I was really tired and fell asleep.

If you hadn’t stayed up past midnight last night, you wouldn’t have been tired.

I had to talk with Macie because she couldn’t do the math assignment, and I had to help her figure it out.


Do you see where this one went—from the issue of cleaning her room to a complete change of subject, and then another excuse!


Think of all the “why” questions we parents and teachers ask: Why didn’t you mow the lawn? Why didn’t you call when you knew you were going to be late? Why did you eat those cookies after I told you I was saving them for dessert? Why did you stay at a party where there was drinking? Why were you late for class?  Why didn’t you come straight home after school? Why—Why—Why?  When we ask a why question, we are literally inviting the child or adolescent to be irresponsible.

Instead of “Why ,” ask  “What”:   The What Question*

What were the directions for the homework?

What are you supposed to be doing right now?

What is expected if someone’s going to be late?

What did I tell you about the cookies?

First, I have to tell you, this isn’t magic. You’ll probably still get an excuse for an answer, but because you weren’t asking Why, just calmly repeat the What Question. It might go something like this:


The Homework Assignment:

I couldn’t get my homework done last night because I had to go to practice…Can I turn it in tomorrow?

What were the directions for the homework?

I know, but I couldn’t do it because…

What were the directions? (matter of fact tone here)

I don’t know where the directions are.

I have them if you’d like to review them before you tell me.

Student reads directions, including date to turn in assignment.

Now, I have to ask again, What did you do?

I didn’t finish the work because I couldn’t do it, so I can’t turn it in, but I can do it if you give me more time.

What are your alternatives at this point?   


There are many possible consequences: so many points off for each day late, taking a zero on this assignment with the option of turning it in late for extra credit (to demonstrate understanding of the assignment and to off-set the zero), etc.  The goal is to help the student take responsibility instead of giving excuses; therefore, the student has to experience the consequences of her decisions.

The What question puts the responsibility where it belongs—on the student.

Let’s look at the other situation:


The Messy Room

What were you supposed to do when you got home from school today?

 I’m going to do it. It’s just that I was really tired and fell asleep.

What was it you were supposed to do? (again, matter-of-fact tone)

I said I’d do it (probably angry, may storm off to his room).


The parent has not changed the subject, and has tried to lead the child to say aloud what s/he is supposed to do. That isn’t always the result, but even if s/he storms off, the message is clear that an excuse is unacceptable.

What if s/he doesn’t clean up the messy room?  Again, consequences are in place.  Remembering that privileges and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin, the parent has options for consequences: cancel the planned trip to the mall, movies, etc. until after the child has fulfilled her responsibility; limit or deny technology—usually a few days to a week; etc., Some things take longer; for example, bringing up a grade or consistently completing assigned chores.

Follow-up in each case is also an important teacher/parent skill. When the child has completed the task, the teacher/parent gives positive feedback by describing the responsible behavior observed. We do this because positive feedback further encourages the development of responsibility.

These 3 skills that promote responsibility are essential if we expect our kids to own their own decisions and behavior:

  1. Using the What Question
  2. Establishing and holding to the natural and/or logical consequences.
  3. Giving positive feedback when responsibility is taken

*Glasser, William (1975). Reality Therapy, New York: Harper & Row, Pub.

Copyright 2020 Judy Harmon Holmes

Companion Blogs:

“Good Job” “Be nice” and Other Meaningless Things We Say to Kids Aug. 2020

Parents and Teachers ask, “What’s the Difference Between Punishment and Consequences?” (Aug. 2018)

Natural Consequences, Logical Consequences, Punishment—Which Should We Use? (Sept. 2018_

One thought on “Why Parents and Teachers should never ask “Why”


    It’s interesting how turning a why question into a what question can lead to a more productive outcome.  Also, with kids being aware of consequences for not meeting expectations and adults maintaining a matter of fact countenance, the conversation between the two would likely have more of an impact on future behavior.

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPad


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