My son recently had his braces removed. As parents know, this is a landmark day for children as it marks the end of pain, a somewhat embarrassing social stigma (although not nearly as bad as when I was his age), and of the household ban on popcorn.

As the assistant explained the procedure to me, I learned that a piece of the “Stage One” appliance would be left intact until we began “Stage Two.” That one seemingly innocuous statement opened the floodgate of questions in my head. What? Stage Two? I thought we were done! I had never even heard of Stage Two. Stage One was expensive enough, not to mention the investment of my time and energy in shuttling him to appointments and nagging him about brushing, flossing and wearing his headgear. And, since when do we need multiple stages for braces?

Ok, Mom. Calm down. I’m sure there’s a logical explanation. Just ask the obvious question and probe for further explanations if necessary.

“Why?” I asked.  The answer I received was the most unsatisfying answer any human being can hear: “Because the doctor said so.”

Tamping down my frustration, I posed the same question directly to the orthodontist. “Why?” Instead of answering my question directly, he began with a mini-tirade about how Google was harming his practice. “People come in here and have talked to their friends or read something on the Internet and then they think they know everything.”

My question had put him on the defensive. Since I didn’t elaborate on why I was asking the “Why?” question, he was let to his own devices to try to interpret my motives. I was not only questioning the procedure, I was questioning his expertise.

The question “Why?” can evoke a powerful response in a school. It can make someone defensive; it can stir up suspicion or anger. It can threaten the established hierarchy or disrupt a collaborative partnership.

“Why?” can also make things better. It can help to clarify the process or make someone’s reasoning transparent. It can lead to further discussion and discovery. “Why?” can help someone reaffirm his or her belief system. It can also push someone’s thinking and lead him or her to revise outdated policies or procedures.

My “Why?” question to the orthodontist came from a place of not knowing. I explained to him that I wasn’t questioning his professional judgment; I just wanted to understand what was coming so I could make better-informed decisions for my son. In that moment, his tension eased and the conversation become more productive for us both.

As a teacher, I get “Why?” questions from parents all the time. “Why?” questions are valuable for building trust and communication.  They are the backbone of the parent-teacher collaboration and move the process of education forward. Please keep the “Why?” questions coming, but be sure to include a little of the why in the “Why?”.

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