The Importance of "Why?"

The question “Why” has become almost comical in parenting circles.  We all know the childhood stage whereby our children will suddenly want to know the answer to everything and it will involve endless “Why?”s over countless days until parents abruptly answer, “It just does!”  Although parents’ frustration is entirely understandable, unfortunately the issue is we end up shying away from the question, treating it as something juvenile and unimportant.  However, this question is one we should (a) be applauding our children for when they ask it and (b) be asking it of them (and ourselves) far more than we do.  “Why” is the natural curiosity question.  It is the question that tests our understanding of a process.  It is a fundamental question that differentiates those who have a gist of an idea and those that get it.

When my daughter when through this stage (she also when through it with “How?”) I found myself learning more to be able to answer her questions.  I also found that if I gave her an unbelievably detailed answer, she stopped asking.  Goodness knows she didn’t understand a lick of it, but that seemed to be exactly what she was looking for: Her own limit in understanding.  We all need to understand our what our limits are and then move beyond them in everything we care about (or need to care about, like education).

I was lucky enough as a child to have parents and teachers (at both a private and public school – good teachers are everywhere) who really focused on this question.  It wasn’t good enough to just come up with the answer, you had to be able to explain why that was the answer.  In Science, in History, in English, in Math, and so on.  I can tell you now that the subjects I did best in were the ones where I could actually go into that detail.  It was also my own personal litmus test as to how well I understood the material.  (Now how often I actually took the “no” answers to heart and studied more is an entirely different issue.)

Unfortunately, the why seems to be gone from most curricula as far as I hear other parents say it and from my own experience.  My stepson is in elementary school (about to start high school) and only at home does the “why” ever come into the equation for his learning in many subjects (though not all).  I still remember the first time I asked why his answer was correct while doing math and I was met with an utterly bewildered look, as if to say, “Who the heck asks that?!  For math?!”  But “why” is just as important in understand Math as it is History or Social Sciences (where it’s far more common).  In fact, arguably the only subject in which I have never gotten or come up with an acceptable answer to “why” is in English spelling.  That one is all over the map and completely nonsensical.  (Perhaps the “why” lies in the various roots to our language, pulling here and there, but it’s not an acceptable why answer when looking at the basics of teaching spelling.)

So I ask this of parents and teachers and students alike: Start asking why more often.  Ask it to your parent, your teacher, your child, and anyone else.  See how much deeper you’ll think about everything.  Even the simplest, “Why did that happen?” while watching a TV show can lead to some insightful thoughts and discussions during or after.  The deeper we think about everything we encounter, the more we understand the world around us, how other people think and act, the materials presented to us, and the more likely we are to take the world by storm.  After all, it’s hard to be lost in this world of school, work, or just plain life if you can answer the question of “Why?”.

By Tracy Cassels

February 02, 2015