because i said so

We’ve all heard it from at least one parent or teacher: “Because I said so.”

On one hand, “because I said so” is an epic fail, a signal that an authority figure is lazy or bankrupt. That’s all you got? When I was a kid I didn’t respect adults who couldn’t provide reasons to support their claims.

Flip the script. Can you imagine accepting “because I said so” as sufficient evidence from a learner? It would be the end of the essay:

The green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby symbolizes money, (lost) opportunity, and envy, three of the major themes of the book and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life.

Because I said so.

If “because I said so” were logically valid, syllogisms would look very different:

All men are mortal.

Socrates is a man.

Because I said so.

So would math:

a2 + b2 = because I said so


Clearly, “because I said so” is an insufficient substitute for evidence or reason.

Then again, evidence and reason are not the only purposes or criteria for giving directions. Sometimes “Because I said so” is actually more rationale than anyone needs. It takes too long to say anything at all when you’re yanking a child out of the path of oncoming traffic.

Context is essential to effective leadership. Agreement and consensus contribute to robust decisions and self-sustaining morale, but circumstances dictate what is possible in the moment. Ask any commanding officer.

“Fine,” you say, “but learning isn’t war. School isn’t a battlefield. Shouldn’t we reason with the children?”

Not always.

There are just a few seconds left on the clock. Thousands of fans are going bananas at teeth-rattling decibel levels. During the team’s one remaining timeout, can even the most enlightened zen master coach facilitate a restorative dialogue about the previous play, or validate each player’s personal sense of whether basketball is the right path for them after all, or host a brainstorm to elicit, evaluate, and act on informed perspectives about what everyone thinks should happen next?

No. Sometimes you have to tell people what to do.

Learners especially benefit from your directive instruction. By definition they literally don’t know any better.

Most of us don’t have all the information we need to make decisions or act in ways that benefit us optimally. We are often inclined to do what feels good – even when it’s not good for us. I see this a lot when students talk about physical fitness – they want to get in good shape, but they apparently like the feeling of sitting on the couch and eating garbage.

Consider this example:

Person 1: “Hey, maybe you don’t want to put that cool, wet towel over your head, neck, and chest.”

Person 2: “Are you stupid? Do you hate me? It’s 120 degrees out here and I’m broiling.”

Person 2’s response is not unreasonable, given the facts they’re working with:

  • It’s hot
  • I’m uncomfortable
  • That towel is cooler than I am
  • Wet feels good

However, Person 1 has more information:

  • The body’s temperature is regulated by a part of the brain that works like the thermostat in your house that regulates your heating and air conditioning
  • The thermostat part of the brain is called the medial preoptic area of the anterior hypothalamus. It’s a small area of tissue above the roof of your mouth and behind your nose.
  • This area of the brain influences things like aggression, sex drive, sleep, and body temperature
  • If you put a bag of ice on the thermostat in your house, it will register an artificially cool temperature and attempt to compensate by turning on the heater
  • If you put a wet, cool towel on the surfaces of your body close to the medial preoptic area of the hypothalamus (e.g., your head, neck, or chest) your brain’s thermostat will do the same thing – i.e., it will compensate for a lower perceived temperature by HEATING YOUR BODY UP MORE

Now, if Person 2 is (a) an adolescent, (b) doesn’t respond well to authority, and/or (c) is bordering on hyperthermia and can’t focus on more than a few syllables at a time because they are starting to cook, time is running out and further explanation is unlikely to win the day.

In that case, it is in Person 2’s best interest for Person 1 to skip further explanation of the hypothalamus and other relevant facts such as the glabrous areas of skin that contain specialized vascular structures to facilitate heat loss. Instead, Person 1 should be more directive:

Person 1: “Put that towel down and rub these ice cubes on the bottoms of your feet.”

Person 2: “Why?”

(*you know exactly where this is going)

Person 1: “BECAUSE I SAID SO!”

The best way to earn the respect of a learner is to give them information that will give them an edge in life. If Person 2 listens to Person 1, Person 2 stays alive and experiences more comfort. This creates trust. Should the opportunity come around again, Person 2 will pay closer attention to what Person 1 has to say the first time.

Sometimes when I teach, I carefully curate information to illustrate and support the points I’m making, especially when those points are counterintuitive or controversial.

But more and more, I put ideas out there without multimedia substantiation.

I have neither the time nor the inclination to try ideas in the courts of teenage brains.

Does this work? I’ll tell you the same thing I tell them. Don’t take my word for it. Experiment. Put it to the test. Hack your life and your teaching. You have the whole internet to play with. Try it today.

Why, you ask?

(*oh, this is too easy)

Because I said so.