Question: I always thought it was a joke about a toddler asking, "Why is the sky blue?" Now that my son is 2.3-years-old, I know better. He literally is asking that question -- along with dozens of others. Practically everything out of his mouth is why? I don't always have the patience for it and I have to admit there are times when I shock myself by being short with him. Any suggestions?
Jane, from Wellesley
That your toddler is asking "why?" is a cognitive leap, one that shows intellectual development. Early questions tend to revolve around factual information -- where? when? -- but once they get to, "Why?" it's a sign that more neurons are firing, enough to recognize that there is a cause and effect. In other words, curiosity is the most likely cause of the question.
That doesn't mean a toddler needs a full-blown intellectual answer; if anything, we just frustrate ourselves and them trying to provide age-appropriate, full-blown answers. Sometimes, less is enough ("Because that's what my mommy taught me; because God made birds fly"). But here's the bottom line: If you want to encourage intellectual development -- not to mention a sense of trust and credibility -- you do need to respond respectfully. That means avoiding saying, "That's a silly question;" "You're too young to know that;" "Who cares?" or worst of all, "Stop asking me so many questions!" Also consider this: While she may not learn anything from your answer per se, she is absolutely learning about the give and take of conversation.
But let's be clear. "Why?" is not always a sign of a budding genius. Sometimes a child's Why? is imitative; she hears you use the word and figures she should, too. It can also be a way to engage you, or to keep you engaged, or simply to hear themselves talk. When you are not clear what your child is asking, or you're at a loss for something to say, or simply tired or overwhelmed, there's nothing wrong with turning the question back on her: "Why do you think the sky is blue?" You may be surprised at her answer.
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