Getting to the Root of Your Child’s Problems

Getting to the Root of Your Child's Problems

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Raising kids is full of challenges. Sometimes it feels like there’s a new one every day! One of the biggest that we face is knowing how to help our kids work through their own problems and obstacles.

But in order to do that, you have to figure out what the real issue is in the first place.

Sometimes getting to the bottom of what’s going on can be a challenge in and of itself. Is your child really so upset about the little thing a friend did yesterday, or is there some other aspect about the friendship or your child’s self esteem that’s at play? Does your child really want to quit karate because it’s “boring,” or is there something else that’s going on?

Other times, you might actually recognize the heart of the problem—it could stand out to you clear as day—but your child doesn’t, and you want to help her see it herself.

Either way, there is a simple set of questions you can use that will help everyone involved get to the bottom of any issue so that your child can move forward and work on solving it.


Lessons from a Toddler

It turns out that your child showed you this technique back when he was 3—you just didn’t realize it then.

Remember how some conversations with your then-toddler started off fun and engaging, but would end up getting, well, annoying? How many times did you live through something like this:

“Mommy, why do birds eat worms?”
“Because that’s what they eat to get big.”

“But why don’t they eat pancakes?”

“Because they don’t know how to make pancakes.”

“Why can’t we teach them?”

“Because we can’t.”

“Why not?”

You could go on forever! And while at first, you might think it’s a cute learning experience for your child, eventually you get to the point where you just want the questions to stop and you blurt out something like: “Quantum physics! It’s quantum physics, okay?!”

Or, how about everyone’s favorite:

“Okay, it’s time to pick up the toys.”


“Because Aunt Monica is coming over.”

“Why does it have to be clean for Aunt Monica?”

You swore when you were younger that you’d never use your mom’s line of “Because I said so”—but doesn’t it just slip out so easily?

Why, why, why, why, why? It could go from cute to grating pretty fast.

But what if your 3-year-old was really on to something?

Your Child and the Inventors of Old

This very line of questioning has been used for decades in everything from engineering and manufacturing to personal coaching.

Its roots can be traced back to Sakichi Toyoda (1867-1930), founder of Toyota and known as the father of the Japanese industrial revolution. Toyoda developed a technique he called “The 5 Whys,” whereby engineers and others at Toyota would seek to understand the cause of problems—and discover their solutions—by asking “why” five times.

Essentially, The 5 Whys helps to draw the lines between all of the factors that come together to influence the problem, often digging up a root cause that might not have been apparent from the start.

Think of The 5 Whys as a short version of the Dr. Seuss book Because a Little Bug Went Ka-Choo! In the story, a sneeze from one tiny bug sets off a wacky chain reaction, ultimately leading to a climax that involves animals, police, helicopters, boats, and a circus parade. If we were to start off with the last page of the book and work our way backward, asking “why” each event occurred, we’d find ourselves back at the root of the whole mess—the little bug that went “ka-choo!”

How This Works with Your Child

Now, your child’s challenges may not be as zany as a Dr. Seuss book, nor as cut and dry as an engineering problem. But The 5 Whys could prove to be just as useful nonetheless.

Let’s use the karate example from above to see how:

“I want to quit karate.”

“Why do you want to quit karate?”

“Because it’s boring.”

“Why is karate boring?”

“Because I don’t like it anymore.”

“Why don’t you like it anymore?”

“Because I’m not good at it.”

“Why are you not good at it?”

“Because I’m too tired at karate class.”

“Why are you too tired at karate class?”

“Because the class is too late.”

In this example, not only have we discovered what seems to be the root cause of the situation, we’ve also discovered a potential solution. If being too tired for an evening karate class is ultimately what’s led your child to want to quit, then perhaps finding an earlier class would solve the problem altogether.

With older kids and teens, The 5 Whys creates an opportunity for them to open up to a degree that they might not otherwise. Think of how often you get a superficial answer as the first response when you ask an older kid or teenager about some issue in their lives:

“How come you don’t hang out with James that much anymore?”

“I just don’t feel like it.”

Digging deeper with The 5 Whys gives you a chance to really find out what’s going on in your child’s life. What’s more, it gives your child a useful tool to become more mindful of her own life—an opportunity to learn how to see connections between thoughts, emotions, and situations that she might not have noticed before.

Tips for Using The 5 Whys with Your Child

The trick, of course, is to make sure that your child doesn’t get as ticked off by you doing this as you might have occasionally gotten when peppered with a million “whys” from a 3-year-old!

For older kids and teens, it’s often best to be upfront: Say something like, “I’d like to try something that at first might seem a little annoying, but I think it’s going to help.”

For younger kids, you might want to make it more playful: “Let’s play a game that might help us fix this problem!” Expect some silly answers from young kids as you get further down the line of questioning. If that happens, just roll with it—the process still gets them to think and still gives you a teaching moment about a technique they can use to problem-solve.

Another thing to think about is timing. Just like with teaching kids meditation and other calming techniques, it might be best to practice this when your child is happy or dealing with a minor issue, rather than trying to introduce the concept when he’s upset by something bigger.

Most importantly, it’s crucial that you not judge your child or her answers while you’re asking the questions. It’s also vital that you not rush in to provide solutions right away. Doing either of these could shut your child down and halt the process before it really gets going.

Ultimately, you need to be a good listener. Notice that your role here is really very simple—your questions are based entirely on the previous answers. The real core of the conversation is coming from what your child has to say. You are there primarily as a guide, facilitating your child as he discovers the heart of the problem and its solutions himself.

And isn’t that the real challenge of parenting—learning how to guide your kids rather than living for them, raising them to solve their own problems and live someday as fully capable adults? With The 5 Whys in your arsenal, you’ll be giving both yourself and your kids an important tool to help you along the way.

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Getting to the Root of Your Child's Problems