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I have a 7 year old son. He routinely disobeys instructions, I am not some strict task master that is always asking him to do stuff but I need him to listen to the things I ask him for his benefit as much as my own.

Whenever I ask him why he did something he wasn't supposed to do or why he didn't listen to something I said to him, he just says he doesn't know, even when I press him on it he just says he doesn't know.

I am not asking him to form some sort of punishment either, I have made it clear to him that I would just like to know the truth because maybe I can help him with whatever it is, but he still says he doesn't know.

So does he, and other children I have heard say the same thing, genuinely not know why he is doing something or is it just a way to hide the real reason ?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – anongoodnurse Jun 1 '18 at 23:10
  • Again reminding - please use comments to clarify the question, not to answer the question or discuss it. Use Parenting Chat for discussions and/or funny snarky comments please. – Joe Jun 4 '18 at 14:01

11 Answers 11

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"I don't know why" could mean a number of things:

The answer is something that will make my parent annoyed if I'm honest.

It's not an outright lie to say "I don't know", but it's a dodge to avoid lying or having to instead confess to something worse. Like, "I didn't pick up my laundry when you asked me to because I was eating a donut after you said not to, and I couldn't come out of the kitchen with donut all over my face or you would know I ate it." This tends to be the least likely option, though, and also tends to be accompanied by guilty looks and/or other evidence of breaking the rules (e.g., fewer donuts in the box).

It could also be that he doesn't want to say "I didn't want to do what you asked, so I ignored it." (Would you react warmly and cheerfully to that, even as honest as it is? I wouldn't.) Even without a punishment attached, kids don't really want disapproval and disappointment, either.

I don't remember what I was thinking when I decided to disregard instructions,
or I don't remember being asked to do something.

In this case, he could say "I forgot what you asked me to do" but may be looking for a reason for why he forgot -- and the "why" of memory and attention is a complicated question!

My ten-year-old with ADHD has absolutely no idea why he has a harder time concentrating on instructions than most people. This frustrates him and frustrates me, so we both work on not looking for the "why" in those cases. (This doesn't imply your child has ADHD, neurotypical children also have moments where they're not paying attention. However, they won't have any better idea of why they weren't paying attention.)

I don't have a way to communicate the complex emotions behind my decision.

If I'm angry about something at work, I'm more prone to forget to run an errand on the way home that I need to get done. The distraction of all the other things in my life got in the way of doing what needed to get done.

But if somebody asks me why I didn't buy bread from the store, I would be hard pressed to explain the sequence of bad meetings, co-worker rudeness, and random software glitches that led to me being so frazzled. At best, I'd be able to say, "Ugh, I just had a bad day."

I don't want to talk about it.

This is a bit more common with older children, especially once you're hitting adolescence, but happens at pretty much any age. If they don't want to discuss what is going on in their head, this keeps that discussion from even starting. And the root cause of that could be any combination of the previous reasons, or wanting privacy, or feeling ashamed of themselves, or just not wanting to talk. (My kids know that any discussion about their motivations will lead to a discussion about making better choices, etc. and that can be boring/exhausting for them...)

Or, it's pure honesty: I don't know why I didn't want to do that thing.

Motivation is a complex subject, and even adults struggle to get to the root cause of choices they make. Sometimes people make bad choices, and children are still developing both impulse control and introspection.

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    'any combination of the previous reasons, or wanting privacy, or feeling ashamed of themselves, or just not wanting to talk.' to this I would add 'something like 'not wanting to be judged on their motivation', its very close to 'privacy' but not exactly the same and I clearly recall it being my own main reason for saying 'i don't know' when asked why I'd done stuff. I'd do the stuff because it was the logical conclusion of a thought process or a curiosity, but I feared that other people would judge those processes and thoughts and either laugh or shout at me. – Spagirl Jun 1 '18 at 10:40
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    I like the last bit. I would go so far as to argue that often even when an adult thinks or claims to know why they did something it's just post-hoc rationalization. – Shufflepants Jun 1 '18 at 15:50
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    Analysing your own decision-making process is a learned skill that takes quite a bit of mental effort. I have some pretty clear memories from that age where I said, "I don't know", when the full answer would have been, "I don't know because it will take me several minutes to remember all the pieces and explain them to you and I don't want to bother if you'll let me get away with feigning complete ignorance." Similar to why "Nothing" is a common answer to asking someone what they're doing when the correct answer would be "nothing of sufficient importance to be worth enumerating." – Perkins Jun 4 '18 at 20:50
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    ...If you do know the reason (or even strongly suspect), then saying you don't know is definitely lying. – jpmc26 Jun 5 '18 at 1:03
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    @Shufflepants IIRC there's a bunch of experimental evidence (e.g. from split-brain patients) that a true conviction/belief of "why I did it" often is post-hoc rationalization that has little to do with the actual motivators. Kurzban's "Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite - Evolution and the Modular Mind" press.princeton.edu/titles/9271.html is an interesting exploration of this topic. – Peteris Jun 5 '18 at 10:47
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I think it's not surprising a seven year old doesn't know exactly why he does what he does. I often don't know why I do things that I know I shouldn't, not really - at least, until I spend a lot of time thinking about it, and I'm old enough that I've got a lot of experience doing that. When I yell at my kids or do something that irritates my wife or fail to tell my wife I'm coming home late or leave a mess in the living room without cleaning it up, there's often a shallow reason, but not a good real reason. Often it simply comes down to the complex interaction of things in my brain at the time, which I can't completely cohere into a single reason.

My suggestion is that when you ask your son why he did something, if he can't explain it, that you give him some tools to think about the why. Often understanding the why is the firs step to correcting behavior - and at seven, he has a lot of learning to do as to how to determine why.

Some tools that can be very helpful:

  • Did you intentionally do the thing, or did you carelessly do the thing?

    Example: When my son is playing iPad, and his timer goes off for his half hour, he sometimes keeps playing for a while. If I notice, I ask why; one question that's key to this discussion is whether he didn't pay attention to the alarm, or if he knew it went off and chose to ignore it. One is not better than the other; in fact, I typically prefer when it's intentional, as often in those cases he can clearly enunciate why he's going over and how long, and can have a rational discussion of whether that's okay. Being careless is somewhat worse here, as it means he's not respecting the rules at all.

  • What was your goal in doing the action?

    Example: If my older son hits his brother, I often try to get to the goal. Not what was the circumstance that led to the hit, but what was the goal of the hit? Was he trying to get his brother to do something, or stop doing something? Was he simply taking his anger out on him, with no specific goal? Once we know the goal, we can work towards solutions.

  • How could you avoid the situation next time?

    This isn't exactly getting at the why anymore, but it's using the why. If he intentionally did the thing, and had a goal, then we can get at better ways to accomplish that goal. If he carelessly did it, such as not listening to my instructions or ignoring an alarm, we can think of better ways for me to communicate with him, and better ways for him to set himself in a comprehending mindset.

Most of all, the thing that I think leads to your child understanding the whys is you having these conversations with him, and not just asking why, but helping him figure it out. Giving him those tools for self-reflection so he can understand why he does things is one of the best things you can give your son. A person who does understand why they do things is a person who can change what they do.

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    On the last bullet, in some cases it can be better to say "How can we avoid this next time?". For instance if he wasn't listening properly to instructions then you can help by making sure you have his full attention first. – Paul Johnson Jun 1 '18 at 10:45
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    Describing a mental process is a rather sophisticated mental activity. To do it, an individual must first remember the key points of the mental process, organize and classify the memories, identify causal relationships, theorize about possible meanings and reasons, be able to test and validate the theories by re-reviewing the experience or supplementing with other experiences, be able to synthesize and summarize the whole ball of wax, and translate it into a coherent verbal description. That's not easy, especially when emotions are raised. – beeflobill Jun 1 '18 at 16:48
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    @PaulJohnson I disagree, I find using 'we' to be terribly patronising, even for children. In my opinion, asking 'what can I do' and 'what can you do' (preferably in that order) will probably elicit a better response. – Pharap Jun 2 '18 at 16:58
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It may surprise you to know that you don't know why you did things. Recent research suggests that contrary to the common paradigm of "stimulus -> reason -> plan -> act" that we believe we operate on, it's more of a "stimulus -> response -> justify" loop. That is, we don't think "I want to do X because of Y" and then do X. We do X, then think "I did X because of Y."

As a child's mind is much less developed, they haven't fully developed the reasoning abilities to back-justify their actions. They just do.

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    An example of that research being Self-reports on mental processes: A response to Birnbaum and Stegner. Adult subjects would confabulate reasons why they had chosen a particular pair of stockings over others, and could not explain the real reason they had chosen it. – Robert K. Bell Jun 1 '18 at 1:34
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    Ah this explains why my 3-year old used to ask me questions like "why did i jump of the last stair/ sing a song/ clap my hands?". I guess at 4 he's learned that i dont know why he does things so he stopped asking. – Ivana Jun 1 '18 at 11:54
  • How does this work with things like, "People eat when they're hungry"? ... Then again, it's likely supposed to be more granular, like, "Why did you eat this instead of that"? – Malady Jun 1 '18 at 20:34
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    Malandy: Have you ever found yourself at the fridge looking for a snack when you meant to be doing something else? Then you rationalize, "Oh yeah, I'm hungry." Except sometimes you're not, you're just at the fridge. – JKreft Jun 1 '18 at 21:24
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    @RobertK.Bell I feel compelled to point out that the paper you cite is, in fact, a joke paper. It's made, at least in part, to make fun of social psychologists who accept provocative/interesting things based on poor evidence (as in "don't let the facts get in the way of a good story"), as well as to make fun of the tendency for people to believe claims that merely sound scientific but are not valid. But to be clear, it is now one of my favorite joke papers of all time; and to be double-clear to future readers, the claims in the paper are intentionally false and meant to be silly. – BrianH Jun 5 '18 at 16:15
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Children at this age are pushing boundaries to learn what they can and can't get away with. They may know right from wrong but are not developed enough to know WHY these things are right from wrong aside from the rote reasons given to them by their parents, caregivers, schools, etc. As such when asked they might not have a valid reason why they did a thing. Most children this age also have impulse control issues. See a thing = grab a thing. Have a thought = say the thought. This can be embarrassing for both caregivers as well as the child after the fact and result in a confusion for the child on the exact reason why they did the thing they did.

In my experience with my own 7 yr old son we dealt (deal) with impulse control issues often. We use storyboarding after the fact to review the events that lead up to and during the infraction. We then storyboard what a positive scenario/outcome would have looked like. This allows for processing in a very visual/kinesthetic way once the emotion of the event has passed for both my son and for us, his parents. It provides him with a more grounded sense of the events rather than the abstract concepts of "right/wrong". It also gives him the ability to determine for himself (with gentle assistance from us) what the proper course of action would have been. Finally it gives all of us a reference point to return to when reinforcement of the correct behavior is needed. He has already determined for himself what the right course should have been and we can celebrate when he takes the proper course the next time, or review with him in his own words/pictures what he needs to re-learn.

The use of this tool can help him learn why he is doing the behavior that he has been taught not to do and to come to some conclusions on what a better tactic could be in the future to ensure he doesn't do this again.

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I'm going to offer this as a possibility, one that has some support in current science but that I find philosophically unpalatable enough that I'm not sold on it's truth:

Free will is an illusion, and we post-hoc narrate reasons for our actions.

So when your child answers he is answering honestly that he doesn't know because he isn't yet far enough along in his development to fabricate the kind of internal narrative an adult would.

In other words, none of us know and your son is just being more honest with himself (and you) than the rest of us.

That being said, I recommend that you encourage your son to stop and think before performing actions. Also regardless of the above argument for determinism, I disagree that a 7 year old is rationally calculating "oh if I do this I'll be punished, but it will be worth it": that's adults projecting their adult thinking on to a child.

References

In addition to the Scientific American article linked above:

  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – Jared Smith Jun 1 '18 at 14:28
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    This is an interesting answer, thanks! I guess, though, that the OP's question then would be, "why can't he verbalize his post-action narrative?" ;) – anongoodnurse Jun 1 '18 at 15:06
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    @anongoodnurse yup. Which is in itself an interesting developmental psychology question, related to lying-as-important-milestone. – Jared Smith Jun 1 '18 at 15:27
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    Sam Harris is not a valid source as a "popular neuroscientist." He is a popular YouTube psuedo-intellectual that happens to have a degree in neuroscience that is unrelated to most of his talking points and in those talking points he contradicts many things he really should know as someone with such a degree. Note also that Sam Harris is NOT the Samuel S. Harris on Google Scholar. All those references involve, shall we say "popular science," which involves a level of summary and complexity reduction that may or may not be appropriate. Please cite actual peer reviewed articles. – ttbek Jun 3 '18 at 14:52
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    I also don't think you give 7 year olds enough credit for complex thought, at least a good portion of them can reason in such a manner, but I think the goal is usually don't get caught, and if caught is it still worth it rather than just assuming they will be caught. My remarks on Harris are not to claim that we have free will, it is very much an open topic and an old one. This is something I considered in high school in an independent study on existentialism, and it wasn't new back then either, it is something that everyone with even a vague idea of how the brain physically works must face. – ttbek Jun 3 '18 at 15:01
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I used to say "I don't know" when asked why I disobeyed

It's possible your child tried but failed, and doesn't know how to say that, like me when I was a kid. I had every intention of obeying. Nobody knew it at the time, but I had a learning disability and an executive functioning disorder. When told to do something like clean my room or get ready for bed, I saw why doing so was important. I understood and wanted to obey and be a grown up. I couldn't do it. I was incapable. I tried my best but failed. I forgot instructions. I couldn't organize my actions. I got lost. I became overwhelmed.

From the outside, an executive function disorder or learning disability can look not much different than lack of effort.

If your child is incapable, he might not be able to say so:

Your child doesn't know about disorders. They aren't capable of realizing something is different about their brain. And as a child, it's very hard to look at an adult who is scolding you, realize they are misunderstanding the situation, and tell them what is really happening. I was so impressionable I just absorbed my parent's assumptions without question. If they asked me why I intentionally disobeyed, then huh, apparently I had intentionally disobeyed. News to me, but I couldn't question it. My parents knew things and I was a dumb child. I had only recently questioned where babies came from. My parents were mysterious genius giants who usually were able to sense my emotions, sometimes better than I could. I assumed they could also sense my intentions, sometimes better than I could. All it took was the implication in the way they asked the question for me to throw out my own version of events and accept their interpretation. So apparently I had disobeyed. That's odd, doesn't seem like me. I don't remember wanting to do that. Why had I done that? I didn't know... so when asked why I did it, that was my answer: "I don't know". It's possible your child is going through the same.

To puzzle out what is going on, try walking through the sequence of events asking what their emotions, intentions, and actions were at each step

"Did you try?"

and if they say yes try to just have them walk through the series of events:

"How did you start? What happened then? And after that? ...

I would avoid even asking "what did you do?" because they may think "well then I stopped" and they really stopped because they were overwhelmed and confused, but they will try to analyze that (incorrectly) and then say something like "I gave up", which isn't the whole picture. It's better to ask "What happened" because it doesn't prompt them to try to analyze.

Try asking them how they felt at each step. Did they feel frustrated? Overwhelmed? Confused? Lost? In a daze? Spaced-out?

See if the pattern of actions, combined with their intentions and feelings, paints a picture. You may be able to see something that they are misunderstanding or unable to explain.

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When your 7-year-old does something he shouldn't be doing (but what he probably enjoys), he does it because a) he wants to, and b) it's worth the expected punishment. But even he realizes that those aren't the correct answers to give to the question "Why did you do it", so he says "I don't know".

Also, "I don't know" is a pretty good answer to why we do a lot of things. We don't think too much about doing things that are "wrong" in some way, we do them because we feel like doing them. It's just that for an adult to say "I don't know why I did it" sounds very wrong, so we have learned to come up with reasons that sound logical. We even convince ourselves that we do things for these reasons.

If a person is on a diet, why does he still eat that ice cream? The most likely reason is that he had a craving for it, and just couldn't resist it. But if you ask him, he will probably come up with a better explanation (which sounds more like he made a conscious decision) like "I felt that I deserved to reward myself". If you asked a child, he wouldn't try to come up with excuses, but would just say "I don't know".

  • People, children and adults - do things they think are not worth the punishment, all the time. Therefore they don't know why they really did that, because logically they shouldn't have and they don't have an actual reason. There's a lot of very, very sad criminal cases like that or cases where the reason has just nothing to do with the fairly complex actual reasons that led to the act, like "I just hate mondays", but the person is incapable of comprehending actual reasons. – Lassi Kinnunen Jun 6 '18 at 11:53
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I suggest to ask these questions after everything has calmed down. And try to find a way to ask the same thing but in a different way. Also, ask that question for other less meaningful things or when something good happen. This will help the child practice thinking and also won't associate "why did you do that?" to something negative.

Also, maybe you already do this. A very important thing is to figure out together how to fix the problem. How can we prevent or clean up (together) what just happen. Even if you know the answer, try to make the child figure it out and praise the fixing part. I always think that if a child need to clean up, they are less likely to make a mess.

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Hindsight is 20/20, sometimes children (and teenagers, and adults) think some actions would be fun until they do them and realize it was a dumb idea. At that point they often think

"I don't know why I ever though this was a good idea"

Which, when confronted about it, often turns into

"I don't know why I did this"

Because it can be humiliating to admit to someone that you thought it would be funny to do whatever landed you in trouble, especially if it is now obvious to you that that idea was a bad one to begin with.

  • But even then funny itself then would need an explanation and that especially usually doesn't have one that can be communicated easily. Why would it have been funny to disobey the rules? – Lassi Kinnunen Jun 6 '18 at 11:57
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Why did Adam bite the apple when he knew what the consequences were?

First I have to say this, "Why?" is a child's question. 'Why' is just a lazy way of avoiding figuring out what you really want to ask, or hoping to find reason where there is none. How, what, where, when, etc are the real questions. "What were you thinking about?" "How did you feel when you were doing it?" etc. Ask the child questions that will lead you to understand their state of mind and emotions and literal physical feelings.

When you seek for a reason you fail to find understanding. "Why" looks for reasons, reasons that can be judged. You are essentially saying, "Stand before me and be judged!" What do YOU think YOU would say if faced with such an inescapable interrogation trap? The child does not hear "Why?" in this scenario, they hear "give me a reason not to punish you!" They can't think of one, so they say "I don't know." A perfectly honest answer.

Maybe the question isn't "Why don't children know why they do things?" but instead, "Does ANYONE know why they do things?"

I think we are fooling ourselves into thinking we have "reasons" for everything that we do, or that we are even making ANY conscious decision at all.

Kids just haven't learned to lie to themselves yet, or to rationalize, compartmentalize, explain, attach emotions to actions, to revise history in their minds to fit the "conscious thought preceeds action" model that we so desperately cling to.

OR

They LOVE the thrill, the adrenaline rush of being "bad" and keep going back for more, despite the consequences.

Could be a lot of things. Ask REAL inquisitive, curious questions, not "WHY", and LISTEN.

  • Why is asking 'why' lazy? Sometimes you just want to know why people act the way they do. And what does Adam have to do with anything? Most importantly, you tell the OP to 'Ask inquisitive questions' but don't give any examples. – Pharap Jun 2 '18 at 17:11
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    I really don't know why this has so many downvotes. I think it's a GREAT answer. "Why did you do (bad thing)?" If the person knew why, they wouldn't have done it. It's a stupid question. Your alternate questions are great, also. Welcome to the site; I hope you stay. – Wildcard Jun 3 '18 at 5:46
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I remember when I did that, don't you? I feel that many of the parenting problems could be solved or mitigated if parents remember themselves in those situations.

Even if you don't, many people do use "Why did you do that?" or "Why the f.. would you ever do that?" like a punishment/rant. And it usually doesn't accomplish anything. Even if it's not a rant, it's a superbroad question like "Why do I exist?" that allows any answer and asks for nothing.

Let's take an example from comments - Flater burned their hair while trying to light a cigarette which was still behind the ear.

If you actually want to understand what happened, you have to break it down in smaller questions. This could also help to develop introspection, help to notice cognitive errors and train to avoid these errors.

What did you take in account when you decided to do that?

Did you expect any particular outcome with regards to [effect accomplished, parent reaction, ...]?

Depending on the case, it will allow for more specific further questions like

What do you think were the factors that made it go different to what you expected? What did you fail to take into account?

"sharing a story" section

This reminds me of an own experience. When I was 8 or 9 I once hit my classmate in the gut. I don't think I was ever a bully but at that moment I felt exactly like a bully willing to hurt and hurting a weaker person.

The teacher asked me why I did that and I didn't know which is what I replied. The teacher asked if I'd like to get hit and I didn't. She suggested I shouldn't do it to others then but I didn't care so I just nodded so she would move on. Of course I knew grownups find that unacceptable but I didn't.

20 years later in retro- and introspection I am pretty convinced that I did that because I instinctively felt it as the right thing to do. To hurt the one that is substantially weaker, to make him feel bad. To do exactly what I wouldn't want to happen to myself - that's why teacher's argument didn't convince me.

This is not a position I support anymore. But I justify that as a evolutionary adaption - I think I felt the need to make the weak one feel unwelcome so he would leave and our pack would become stronger improving the survival chances.

How could I possibly understand and explain any of that at an age when I was behaving on instincts like a savage not a member of contemporary society? Even if I could, most teachers wouldn't like to hear that.

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