When Kids Question Everything

Why, why, seriously why? by Jennifer MillerIt just started happening seemingly out of the blue. “Why can’t I watch PG-13 rated movies? I know kids in my class who do.” “Why do I always have to go upstairs for bed at 7:00? The neighbors all get to stay up later.” And then what seems like minutes later, I hear “Why do we always only read one book? Why can’t we read two?” This rash of questioning our family practices and routines collided, as often challenges do, with my own set issues – work deadlines, literal pains in my neck, volunteer dates and a general stacking up of life pressures – leaving me with little patience for these questions. But as I thumbed through my handy child developmental milestones book (Yardsticks 1) as I often do to help extend my patience level, I note my son is right on schedule. Eight going on nine years of age, he seems to be awakening – again – as happens so many times in a child’s development – to new ideas and differences between him and his peers. He’s beginning to notice injustices and inequalities on an individual, personal level. The questions have the same essential focus: “Why does the guy next to me get privileges that you, Mom, say I can’t have?”

As I take a step back, breathe and reflect, I realize that this is the foundation of developing moral thinking. He needs to begin to question his own differences from his very personal social encounters in order to think more broadly, in the future, about inequities in the community and world. So my quick response, with the undercurrent of annoyance, was to explain why we do things differently than other families. But after I stepped away and reflected on these series of questions, I decided to follow up with my son to talk further about how it’s critical that he continues to ask those questions even if it makes me temporarily uncomfortable. He should understand the context and the why behind the rules even at his tender age of eight. Ruth Charney, author of Habits of Goodness asks these essential questions,

When we reward right answers and pass over (or scold) wrong ones, are we encouraging divergent thinking or reinforcing right-answer thinking? When we make all the choices and impose unquestioned rules, do we give opportunity to learn self-control or make decisions? And when our rules are broken, do we accomplish our goals more effectively by doling out punishments or by working on problem-solving that fosters child responsibility? 2

It remains a critical job for parents to teach children the rules of the household and why they are important. Being a part of a family means that there are guidelines that keep everyone safe and cared for. All members must contribute by following those guidelines. But questioning is important. Understanding the rules and the reasons for them begins the ethical thought process for children. So it’s worth taking the time to talk through and help your child understand the thinking behind the rules.

In understanding how moral development emerges in our children, Carol Gilligan proposed three stages she called “The Stages of an Ethic of Care.” 3 They are

1.Preconventional or Selfish – Every person necessarily begins with a survival perspective focused only on themselves. This worldview from infancy through nine years old (varies in timeframe as all developmental milestones do) assists young children in focusing on secure relationships with caregivers and establishing their own supports for survival so that they can open their minds to other possibilities later in life. And that focus on a secure attachment will allow children to form healthy relationships and give them the confidence to explore school and the world beyond home.

In this worldview, rules are given by authorities, not questioned but obeyed and taken literally. If they are disobeyed, there is punishment. But if a person remains stuck in this survivalist worldview, it limits his growth and ability to demonstrate care for himself and others. It also significantly limits thinking about complexities or making decisions that take responsibility for one’s role in a larger community.

Moving out of this phase (as my son seems to be), there is a questioning of authority. This is necessary to move from a sense of selfishness and survival to responsibility.

2. Conventional or Social – In this phase of moral development, caring for others takes primacy. A core sense of responsibility is established, an awareness of others around the individual and the impact they have on those others. In this stage, self sacrifice is good. Individuals may care for others while ignoring their own needs. They may even do harm to themselves (perhaps inadvertently) in an effort to help others. This tends to be a feminine trait though it can be seen in both genders.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development – “Ethics of Justice” – which served as a precursor to Carol Gilligan’s, offered some helpful perspectives on this stage from a more masculine perspective. 4 His theories were criticized because his research studies only involved male subjects and were largely based on artificial (fictitious) situations. But we can learn about justice thinking from his work. In his Conventional Stage, relationships become important for the individual. They act in good and compliant ways in order to receive approval from others. The individual becomes aware of the rules of the wider society and obeys them to avoid guilt.

Moving out of this phase into the final phase, the individual moves from goodness to truth, from responsibility in order to gain approval to an internalized compass for not hurting self or others in concert with or despite societal rules.

3. Post Conventional or Principled – Kohlberg and Gilligan agree that most people never evolve their worldview to this place though this is the final stage. In this stage, the person’s thinking evolves to valuing nonviolence so that he or she makes decisions, however complex the situation, relative to doing no harm to himself or others. Though this kind of thinking and the actions that follow is a rarity in our world, it certainly is a level to pursue and promote with our children.

As with all stages of development, individuals can dip into former stages depending upon the circumstances. The previous stages are always a part of a person. The development that occurs in an individual becomes a raised awareness in which they predominantly view the world in that way.

Do we want to raise children who will obey rules without question? I certainly don’t. If a regime like Hitler’s came into power, I need to know that my son would be prepared to be civilly disobedient, to question authority and to make choices that preserve the rights of himself and others.

Here is what I plan to do.

I will do this by having patience with his questioning. I will talk through the whys of our family routines and practices and involve him in thoughtful reflection and work on recreating practices that may not make sense anymore.

I will promote moral thinking by encouraging care and consideration for others. When I have the chance to help a neighbor or a friend who is ill, I will significantly involve him in thinking about and acting upon that care.

I will voice compassion. When kids say mean words or act meanly, in addition to acknowledging my child’s hurt feelings and helping him respond in ways that maintain his dignity and others, I will express compassion for those who are perpetrating hurt. We are all connected in a school and neighborhood community. Our hurt impacts one another. So that compassion for those who are hurting and are unable to control themselves in hurting others helps stop that cycle of harm.

I will help him to question authority. First, I need to be okay with him questioning my authority. Though sometimes the answer will be “No.”, I will always explain the reasons behind why it’s my response.

I will offer him the chance to see complexities. I will offer him practice with responsible decision making by allowing him to make choices that he and he alone will make. And he will get the chance to experience whatever consequences follow. I will facilitate his thinking by asking open-ended questions, not hurrying in to “fix” what’s wrong, but using my self-control to allow him to think for himself.

We live in highly complex times. This era of parenting involves an entire global community through the digital world that was simply not a part of the parenting experience in previous generations. We, as parents, require new ways of parenting that are reflective and thoughtful and help facilitate deeper thoughtfulness in our kids.


Have a middle or high school age tween/teen? Check out #Youthvoices to contribute to discussions on ethical issues created by Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project’s Youth Advisory Board. #YouthChoices asked tough questions about when and how to speak up in the face of sexism, racism, ableism, and homophobia, and shared stories about cheating, social contracts, cutting class, and whether to stand up to adults at school.

Search the hashtag on Twitter and Instagram to see more posts, photos, and videos, check out the #YouthChoices Storify for a snapshot of the campaign, and read HGSE’s Usable Knowledge story about the project.


  1. Wood, C. (2007). Yardsticks, Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14. (3rd Ed.) Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children
    2. Charney, R.S.(1997). Habits of Goodness, Case Studies in the Social Curriculum. Turner Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.
    3. Carol Gilligan’s Stages of an Ethic of Care, http://ethicsofcare.org/carol-gilligan/
    Gilligan, C. (1977). In a Different Voice: Women’s Conceptions of Self and of Morality. Harvard Educational Review, 47(4), 481-517.
    4. Kohlberg, L. (1984). The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages (Essays on Moral Development, Volume 2). Harper & Row.

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