My son just turned three a few months ago, and apart from playing with dinosaurs, his current favorite activity is bombarding everyone with the three-letter question: Why?
Don’t get me wrong; the first few times a child starts asking, it’s cute. You feel like the great, all-knowing Oz whom he turns to for all of life’s answers. It’s also inspiring to know that he is curious, and his mind must be rapidly expanding and sparks flying with every question answered.
As he smiles and nods in understanding, you sit back and feel content for helping contribute to his learning. And then, a look crosses his face, and you realize the conversation isn’t over because your little preschooler is just getting warmed up.
It’s easy to dismiss your kid’s line of questioning as nothing more than random questions with no actual meaning or value for a child who may seem too young to understand or appreciate the answers. But, as studies show, or really, as any mother will tell you, children as young as two years old can make sense of the objects around them and understand causal effects. In other words, when they ask you, “why?”—they want an honest-to-goodness explanation.
A study by the University of Michigan focused on 40 children between the ages of two and five. The children were put in a room with interesting objects, pictures and books which aroused their curiosity. Soon they were asking questions and seeking explanations. The adults with them were given preprogrammed answers. Some simply answered, “I don’t know,” while others answered their questions. The children whose questions were not answered either asked their original question again or stopped asking. Some went on to ask other adults instead. Meanwhile, those whose questions were answered properly either happily agreed or proceeded to ask follow-up questions.
Basically, this study tells us that children are not asking simply for the sake of asking. They truly want to understand. It also tells us that, if your child continuously asks follow-up “why’s” to your answer, you’re somehow on the right track. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t tell you how to answer every question they think of, or where to get the patience when the questions come every hour on the hour, every day.
Fortunately, a few simple strategies can help you win the World War Why.
The first step to dealing with the never-ending “why’s” and “how’s” is to maintain a patient and positive attitude. It helps to remember that children’s brains are developing at a rapid pace, which should be taken advantage of and supported as much as possible. Children’s curiosity aids their learning, and it’s our job as parents and first teachers to encourage their curiosity instead of stifling it.
Unfortunately, a change in attitude doesn’t change how tired you are at the end of the day, at which point, there are only so many questions one can answer. In cases like these, postponing the answer to the question until a better time is your best bet.
For instance, when you are rushing to meet a deadline and your little one decides to start a long series of questions on what happened to the dinosaurs, you can try to answer that you will happily discuss it with him as soon as you finish what you are doing in X minutes or hours.
Or, you can also designate a specific part of the day when you will discuss it, such as over dinner or while washing up. Sometimes, this works like a charm. Other times, I find that I have to divert my son’s attention to something else in the meantime. But always, follow through on the promised discussion because, no, your kid will not forget. This teaches him to trust you the next time you ask to postpone answering.
It is also a huge burden off anyone’s shoulders to admit that you don’t know the answer. Sometimes, what makes the question and answer routine so difficult is the simple fact that we don’t know anything about the subject that our kids suddenly find themselves fascinated with. Make your life easier and learn something new for yourself by looking up the answer together. Maybe you have enough books at home to answer the question, or if not, Google is always just a click away.
But not all questions come through spoken words. Sometimes our kids ask the most important questions without words, and it’s not always easy to hear them. It may be easier to scold an older child who tries to act like a younger sibling or a new baby than to hear the question they can’t ask: “Do you still love me?”
At night, when you are woken up from a deep sleep, as your child cries for you in the middle of the night, there is the concern of “Will you keep me safe?”
At the end of a long day, when he gleefully jumps into your tired arms as you are rushing to work on something, the question might be, “Are you happy to be with me?”
Just as they don’t use words to ask these special questions, they are not looking at our words for answers, either. They are looking at our actions, our tone of voice and attitude as we relate to them. With every smile, we reassure them of our love. Every warm embrace says that they are special and that you will never let anything harm them.
Take time to listen. You may not be able to answer every question they have, but by simply being there to listen to their thoughts, we are letting them know that what they think is important, and that they, as people, are worthwhile.
Listening to children also builds the necessary foundation of open communication lines that you will need when they get older.
And, lastly, listening empowers them and helps them to be confident and eager to learn more about the world around them. Who knows what they might discover one day?
Better yet, you never know what you might discover in your own child today.