In his 2010 TED Talk “How great leaders inspire action,” Simon Sinek noted that the most successful businesses share a simple trait: They start with why. Every decision, strategy, and deal reflects their core mission — their “why” — and supports their success.
Why is this so effective? As Sinek explains, our limbic brains (our decision-making centers) aren’t concerned with facts and rationality. They operate on emotions. When we’re clear on why we want to achieve a particular goal, we can trust our instincts. Even if an opportunity sounds good on paper, we’ll turn it down if it doesn’t feel right.
Starting with why has led to the creation of world-changing businesses. But it’s extremely powerful in parenting as well.
No matter how healthy a relationship you have with your kids, conflicts always arise. Sometimes, they’re between you and your children; other times, the kids come to you with outside problems. Whatever the issue is, starting with “why” is critical to having productive conversations about those challenges.
Starting With Why Changes the Dialogue
When problems crop up in business or in parenting, most people default to the obvious conflict. Let’s take a scenario just about every parent faces at some point: A teenager is angry that her mom and dad won’t let her stay up an hour later to watch a popular TV show, a middle schooler wants to be allowed to see a movie with his friends unchaperoned, or a preteen wants an allowance because her friends get one.
Oftentimes, these conflicts deadlock because parents and kids don’t talk about the underlying need driving the request. The real problem isn’t whether they can watch a particular TV show or see a certain movie. They might be trying to fit in with friends or craving space to mature. By reframing the conversation around why your child is making a particular request or complaint, you open up the conversation. Then, you can work together to find a solution that satisfies their needs for independence and your values as their parent.
Here’s an example of how starting with why helped our family. When Blake, my son, was young, he told us he didn’t want to be a Boy Scout any longer. I’ll bet you can guess what we asked him: “Why do you want to quit?”
“Well,” he said, “I’m just not interested in it anymore.” To me and my wife, this was surprising. He had been happy in Scouts for a few years. So we asked again — and again and again until we got to why, exactly, Scouts suddenly wasn’t “interesting” anymore. We found that it wasn’t Scouts itself at all; Blake thought the activities at meetings were a blast. On the contrary, it was other boys misbehaving or goofing off during those activities — so much that Blake couldn’t participate in what they were supposed to be doing — that bothered our son.
When we discovered that, Blake’s sudden disinterest in Boy Scouts seemed much more understandable, not to mention easier to solve. These activities were Scout-led, so Blake decided he would start stepping up as one of the leaders, meaning he would be able to take part in the activities he really wanted to, not get distracted or pushed to the side by kids who didn’t want to participate.
We simply had to figure out why there was something preventing him from having fun. When we started there, we were able to solve it. And when we solved it, Scouts, once again, became interesting to him — as a matter of fact, he wound up staying in Scouts, becoming a troop leader, taking leadership classes, developing leadership curricula, training new leaders, and eventually becoming an Eagle Scout.
Teaching Your Kids to Start With Why
Cultivating this mentality can take years and often involves frustrating and emotionally painful conversations. But starting with why leads to important breakthroughs for your kids — and for your relationship with them. Here’s how to develop this thought process from a young age:
1. Model curiosity.
“Why?” is the most powerful question kids can ask. Developing the habit early will allow them to extend their natural childhood curiosity into adulthood, so celebrate questions on any and all topics in your household. If they express an interest in a particular topic, embrace it with gusto. Take them to museums, read books with them, and buy educational toys and building sets to help them explore their hobbies. Before they’ve developed the skill themselves, guide their thinking by asking your own “why” questions. They’ll learn from that behavior, copying you, and formulate their own queries soon enough.
Building a high-stimulation environment is also important for your kids’ cognitive development. Fill their playrooms with interesting toys that make sounds and have lots of sensory features. Talk to them often, even from infancy, using rich vocabulary. The input will hold their attention and help their brains develop in a way that enables them to make observations and ask thoughtful questions as they grow.
As they grow, continue to ask them “why” questions; the questions will become an accepted and expected part of your dialogue with your children, as well as a question for which an answer should always be provided. This will develop the framework and habit for crucial conversations when they reach adolescence.
2. Provide the tools to start with why.
In addition to modeling curiosity for your kids, make sure they have the tools to explore their curiosities. Depending on what those interests are, you might purchase a chemistry set or a relevant book series. Maybe there’s an app that offers gamified learning in a particular area. When they see you’re willing to invest in them and support their curiosity, they’ll feel emboldened to continue asking “Why?” in all areas of their lives.
The same holds true for emotional challenges. If your kids are struggling socially or have conflicts with a friend, seek out age-appropriate books and videos that will help them understand their feelings and those of their friends. Be patient when they’re upset with you, too. It’s not easy to hear your kids talk about being angry with you, but that’s when it’s even more important that you find the “why” together. How you respond to conflicts within your family will directly impact the way they interact with others.
3. Create a safe environment for asking questions.
As kids get older, they become self-conscious about asking questions. They fear their classmates’ ridicule, so they often stay silent when they want or need more information. To overcome this anxiety, make sure your home is a safe environment for curiosity. Respond to your kids’ questions with enthusiasm, and follow up on topics they’ve asked about in the past. This will make them feel heard and validated, and they’ll be comfortable asking questions in other situations as well.
Of course, you can’t be with them at school or when hanging out with friends, so you need to find other ways to motivate them past the fear of ridicule. Making curiosity cool is a great way to do this. Talk to them about their favorite gadgets, such as their smartphones, video game consoles, or tablets. Explain how those were all created by people who constantly worked in search of the “why” and had an insatiable curiosity about how things worked. If they connect questions with things that interest them, they’ll be more likely to speak up when they want to know something.
Starting with why is a transformative practice that sets your kids up for a lifetime of learning and self-actualization and prevents a victim mentality. My children both grew up to be entrepreneurial self-starters, and I believe starting with why played a big role in that.
When you teach your kids that the process of puzzling through a problem is fun and rewarding, they see obstacles as exciting challenges instead of deal breakers. Ultimately, they will live richer, more fulfilled lives because of it.
Jim Marggraff is a serial entrepreneur dedicated to developing innovative technologies. Jim’s latest company, Eyefluence, was recently acquired by Google. He also invented the LeapPad learning system and the Livescribe smartpen, helping students and adults around the world. Jim is not only an [...]