Why oh why? Toddlers & their questions

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 19, 2009 06:00 AM

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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

Hi Jane,

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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3 comments so far...
  1. I think it's OK to answer a bunch of questions, and then say, "OK that's enough questions for now. Mommy needs to concentrate on her driving (or cooking or shoveling, or whatever activity)." Sometimes asking the child questions can divert them to another line of thinking. I do agree that sometimes kids ask 'why' when they don't even really care about the answer. They're just using it as a basis to communicate. As a last resort, I used to answer, "why, indeed?" which my kids did not like at all, but they had to learn, as Barbara said, the give and take of conversation.

    Posted by michmom May 19, 09 01:03 PM
  1. I agree with the first poster. I usually answer a series of questions and then say "It's time to take a break from questions now."

    Posted by Jennifer May 20, 09 02:32 PM
  1. I think relaxing and seeing the reason behind your toddlers "why" question is great advice.

    It can be a frustrating time but if you change your view of it and see your young toddler as becoming curious and inquisitive it will help you relax, answer their questions respectfully and positively and will help your toddler develop their language, cognitive and social skills all at the same time!

    Sue Atkins
    Authro

    Posted by Sue Atkins January 27, 10 05:45 AM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. I think it's OK to answer a bunch of questions, and then say, "OK that's enough questions for now. Mommy needs to concentrate on her driving (or cooking or shoveling, or whatever activity)." Sometimes asking the child questions can divert them to another line of thinking. I do agree that sometimes kids ask 'why' when they don't even really care about the answer. They're just using it as a basis to communicate. As a last resort, I used to answer, "why, indeed?" which my kids did not like at all, but they had to learn, as Barbara said, the give and take of conversation.

    Posted by michmom May 19, 09 01:03 PM
  1. I agree with the first poster. I usually answer a series of questions and then say "It's time to take a break from questions now."

    Posted by Jennifer May 20, 09 02:32 PM
  1. I think relaxing and seeing the reason behind your toddlers "why" question is great advice.

    It can be a frustrating time but if you change your view of it and see your young toddler as becoming curious and inquisitive it will help you relax, answer their questions respectfully and positively and will help your toddler develop their language, cognitive and social skills all at the same time!

    Sue Atkins
    Authro

    Posted by Sue Atkins January 27, 10 05:45 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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