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The Five Whys: get to the root cause of your kid’s behavior

Have you ever been completely blindsided by your kid’s behavior and didn’t know how to begin the conversation? Maybe your kid made a rude comment to a sibling or had a total emotional breakdown when their corn touched their green beans at dinner.

Sometimes parenting can be a complete mystery. When unexpected emotions and reactions happen, it gets even more baffling. But there are ways to get to the bottom of tricky parenting scenarios. One is to go into curiosity overdrive and ask why. Our kids ask ‘why’ all the time—we should do it more often. Asking why helps us get to the root cause of a situation, because it highlights cause-and-effect relationships.

Businesses use a concept called the “the Five Whys” to get to the root cause of a problem. The process is simple: identify the problem and then ask “Why?” five times to dig deeper into why the problem exists. Pioneered by car manufacturer Toyota in the 1950s, the Five Whys technique is widely taught in business schools and teacher training programs. Parents can bring the Five Whys method into the home, too. To get started
  1. Identify the problem
  2. Ask your kid “why” five times to get to the root cause
  3. Develop a solution for the root cause
At Prepared Parents, we created a Five Whys Activity for kids to do alongside their parents. Download the Five Whys Activity to help your kid find the root cause of a problem they’re facing.

<<Download the Five Whys activity>>

You can also use the Five Whys in a 1:1 conversation with your kid. Here’s an example of how Montessori teacher and parent Maren Schmidt used Five Whys with her kid.
  • Identify the problem: My son told his sister that her coloring was messy.
  • Ask your kid “why” five times to get to the root cause:
    1. First Why: “Why did you tell your sister that her coloring was messy?”
      “Well, it is messy.”
    2. Second Why: ”Why do you think it is messy? Show me what you mean.”
      “She colored way outside the lines. And there are scribbles everywhere.”
    3. Third Why: ”Why do you think she needs to color her pictures your way?”
      ”Because when she gets to third grade, her teacher will make her do it over. And she will have to stay in at recess and do her work over.”
    4. Fourth Why: ”Why do you think it is not okay to do your work over?”
      ”If you do work over you miss recess, and the teacher looks at you funny. And your friends think you are a dork.”
    5. Fifth Why: [It only took four ‘whys’ in this case.]

  • Develop a solution for the root cause: Ask your kid how you can help or engage them in ideas of how to find a solution In this case, the questions in that conversation included: “How can I help you with your situation at school?” and “How can I help you be kinder to your brother and sister, since they’re not in third grade yet?” The answer: “Just remind me that they’re not in third grade yet.”
Like in this case, the root cause is sometimes so far removed from the original problem that it requires solving in two places: for the root cause and the original problem. In Schmidt’s case, the family made sure to not only discuss how to make their son’s school experience better, but also circled back around to the original problem to confirm a solution there. There is a difference in solving for symptoms and underlying causes. We can solve all day long for symptoms (like sibling squabbles) but the real work begins when we dig deeper into the bigger issues (like embarrassment at school). 

Another parent—New York Times reporter and best-selling business author Charles Duhigg—shared insights on how he and his wife used Five Whys to diagnose a family issue: failing to eat dinner together every night. It turns out, after asking Five Whys, they realized their bumpy morning routine with the kids was the root cause of why they weren’t eating dinner together. Getting out the door too late meant they missed valuable morning time before morning meetings, causing them to stay late every night, resulting in deprioritized family time. As parents, we can even use Five Whys to find the root of our own challenges.

Whether you’re trying to get to the bottom of your kid’s unexpected behavior or a problem they’ve shared with you, use Five Whys to dig deep into the root cause. Then, work with your kid to find a solution that makes life a whole lot easier.

<<Download the Five Whys activity>>