Five Whys Can Help

five whys can help

”For whatever reasons my eight-year-old, Eric, is critical of everything his younger siblings do. Eric tells his sister that her coloring stinks. He tells his brother that his handwriting is messy. Last night Eric burst into tears because the peas touched his mashed potatoes. Nothing seems to make him happy right now,” Michael told me. ”How can I fix it?”

”You can’t fix it, Michael,” I replied.

”What? There must be something I can do,” Michael said.

”Of course, there’s something you can do. But you need to involve Eric in the process. Don’t try to fix Eric. Work with Eric to see what he is feeling and thinking.”

I explained to Michael a probing technique taught to me by a philosopher friend called ”The Five Why’s.”

Dr. Carey maintained that if we asked ”why” five times we could discover the root cause of a problem or a core value inherent in a situation.

Michael and I role-played for a few minutes with the five why’s. I encouraged Michael to talk to Eric privately to get at the root of Eric’s criticisms. Michael and Eric’s conversation went something like this:

”Eric, why did you tell your sister that her coloring was messy?”

”Well, Dad, it is messy.”

”Why do you think it is messy? Show me what you mean.”

”Here, Dad. See, she colored way outside the lines. And there are scribbles everywhere.”

”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.”

”Why do you think it is not okay to do your work over, Eric?”

”If you do work over you miss recess, and the teacher looks at you funny. And,” Eric burst into tears, ”your friends think you are a dork.”

In only four why’s Michael began to get a picture about the root cause of Eric’s negative and critical behavior towards his siblings. Eric felt overwhelmed by the standards set by his third-grade teacher.

In the spirit of ”working with” Eric instead of trying to ”fix” Eric, Michael asked, ”Eric, how can I help you with your situation at school?”

Eric told his dad that he didn’t need any help at school. ”I can handle it, Dad,” he said.

”Okay, then. But Eric, I want you to know that I am always here to help you when and if you need it.

”Sure, Dad.”

”How can I help you be kinder to your brother and sister, since they’re not in third grade yet?”

”Gosh, Dad,” Eric began to grin through his sniffles. ”Just remind me that they’re not in third grade yet.”

Use the five why’s to work with your child to discover the root of a problem. Remember to work with children, and resist the urge to fix a situation.

Building Cathedrals Not Walls

6 Responses to “Five Whys Can Help”

  1. I’ve used this technique in the workplace as part of quality assurance procedures (I discovered it in the book Lean Startup), and never thought to use it in personal contexts. My bubba is only 10 months so we’ve got a ways to go before we could use it, but wow what an effective technique! This has also opened my eyes to look for other crossovers between professional best practice and family relationship building (and vice versa).

    Insightful and thought provoking as always Maren ☺

    • Clare,

      Isn’t it interesting that what works with adults can also work with children?

      I learned this technique in college in one of my communications courses, conflict resolution, if I remember correctly.

      For years I taught it in business workshops and discovered it worked with my children.

      You’ll be using it with your toddler before you know it!

  2. This is really valuable content. Thanks for putting into a real life situation for me. Who is Dr. Carey and where did the idea of 5 whys come from? Thanks.

    • Gina,

      Dr. Carey was one of my college professors back in the late 70’s.

      As I remember it, he told us that the five whys was something he had learned in studying philosophy, and he urged us to use it as part of our “listening for understanding” skills in our conflict resolution class.


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