My two-year-old daughter is going through a “Why?” phase. I’m not too worried about it, though. I had plenty of practice when my five-year-old went through the same thing, and through trial and error I figured out the best way to survive it.

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So here it is: the only way to get a preschooler to stop asking why? is to out-why? them. Whenever they ask a question, answer it. Don’t get impatient, don’t sigh and say, “just because”—none of that stuff. Push right through those impulses. Instead, take it wherever it goes. Use Wikipedia if you need to. Never give in, never give up. If you answer every why? question with gusto, eventually your child will get bored and move on to another topic or game. It never fails.

Well, it almost never fails. I recently had an experience with my two-year-old where I had to deviate from this tried and tested path. One morning she asked me, “Daddy, why do you go to work?” My preprogrammed brain immediately switched to out-why? mode; I geared up for another long session, opened my mouth… and then closed it. I didn’t know what to say. I was speechless.

I didn’t want to say “To make money so we have food to eat.” That’s (part of) the truth, but I don’t want to teach her that we work only for material reasons. I couldn’t say “To make the world a better place,” because that just makes me sound ridiculous and it’s not the whole truth either (as much as I want it to be).

So there I was, stuck on what should have been a pretty simple question. Why do I go to work? Why is that so hard to explain? Do I even know why? The thing is, it does get complicated very quickly once you start playing out some of the scenarios. Here’s just one way it could have gone down with my daughter:

Emery, I go to work because it’s what society expects. So that we can have food and a place to live, and so that I can help pay for things we use every day like schools and roads. But I also work because I want to be creative and use my brain wisely—and preferably do that in a way that makes other people’s lives a little better or easier in some way.

What’s that? Oh, Mommy chooses not to work, not because she can’t or doesn’t want to, but because what she wants more right now is to be with you guys as much as possible while you’re still so young. Not everyone gets to decide that, so we’re very lucky. And when she decides to go back to work it won’t be because she doesn’t love you but because she also wants to do all those things I mentioned earlier.

Hmmm? Well, see, some people don’t work because they don’t want to, others because they can’t find a job—and that can be really hard for them and their families. Some people do jobs that they don’t want to do, but they have to because it’s all there is, and they don’t have a choice.

As I played this scenario out in my mind, further and further into the depths of tangled reasoning, I realized why I didn’t know what to say. It’s because I’ve increasingly become aware of the reasons I am where I am, and live where I live. And as much as we all want to believe that our successes happen because we’re so awesome, the truth is that where we’re from and how we grew up and what kind of opportunities we had as children play an enormous role in all of it.

When we water down work to pithy sayings like “do what you love” or “work is love made visible” we do the complexity of the topic an enormous disservice, and we ignore the huge role that—yes, I’m going to go there—privilege plays in all of it. You see, “do what you love” is only possible if you’re in a financial and social position to follow your passion wherever it goes. “Work is love made visible” is easier said than done when you have three jobs that you don’t like, and have to struggle to make it through the day.

I don’t have an answer for my daughter on the work question yet. But I do know that why we work—and what kind of work we do—is a function of our privilege and our history as much as it is a function of our choices and our dedication.

I do have a question for my daughter, though. A question we should probably explore together before we get into the work thing. I think I’ll go home tonight and ask her “why?” Why do we get to live here? Why does she get to go to school? What keeps some others from having the same opportunities? Is that fair? Can we become more conscious of our privilege? How can we shine a light on injustice all around us and get involved in our community in more helpful ways?

My daughter probably won’t like it if I turn the why? tables on her. But I think it’s important. I think we should place emphasis a little more on how we can help others who don’t have our privilege and history than on how to be happy and rich. If my daughter and I both learn that out of the exchange, I’d consider it a win not just for parenting, but for my own life as well.

7 Reader Comments

  1. I tell my son the same thing when we are spinning his globe, in the Netherlands. We had the luck to follow our passions. Having the resources and time to advance ourselves make us even more lucky

  2. A few months ago my son (then two years old) asked me “Dad, why is cinnamon bread impossible?” Just what exactly do you say to something that’s predicated on absurdity… I’m sure you’ve fielded a couple of those ‘why’ questions, eh?

    Another favourite episode:
    “Why [something that Dad doesn’t remember]?”
    “I’m sorry, I don’t think I can answer any more ‘why’ questions tonight.”
    “Why can’t you answer any more ‘why’ questions tonight?”

    Anyhow, although I try my best, some of those questions just aren’t answerable!

    But I digress. Back to the topic of your article, I really appreciate that you had the guts to swim against the current and criticise the whole “do what you love, don’t settle for anything less” trope. Sometimes even a good job is just a job, and the ‘why’ behind it is that you have a mortgage, you want to be able to buy healthy food and take your kids on holidays, and the job gives you a chance to exercise your brain.

  3. My wife and I have been extremely lucky in that both of us have had positions that allowed us to follow our passions and keep food on the table. She was a Pediatric Oncology Nurse for 25 years and I have been building things that make my coworkers lives better, contribute to the bottom line and this eventually ends up in the form of increased earnings for all my coworkers. I realize how incredibly rare this is for both of us to have work we truly care about. I think our kids have a mindset that everyone has jobs that they are passionate about, that these opportunities just fall into your lap and of course, that’s just not true. In their teens now, they will soon be faced with the mind-numbing prospect of flipping burgers or pushing electronic paper in an office all because they have failed to find what they are passionate about.

  4. “But I do know that why we work—and what kind of work we do—is a function of our privilege and our history as much as it is a function of our choices and our dedication.”

    I think it’s the other way around. The work we do is not the result of our privilege, rather, our privilege is determined by the work that we do. The kind of work we do is not up to chance. Every individual has the ability, regardless of circumstance, to work as hard as they want at whatever they want, & to be as successful as they wish to be. Initial conditions wash out. And at the core, the answer to the “why”, is ultimately a matter of survival.

  5. Rian, this was a fresh article. I didn’t know ALA had articles such as these. Really a fresh perspective on work-life balance. No matter how great our job or salary is, if it doesn’t make other people’s lives better, I personally feel demotivated. I’m sure other folks will agree.

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