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Curious Minds Want to Know

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A frequent question I receive from parents like you is: Why, oh why, does my toddler ask, “why?” Sometimes it can feel non-stop.
Why does it rain? Why do I have to go to school? Why do I have to wear shoes? Your own child may be asking you “why” so much that it’s driving you crazy, especially at inopportune moments like when you’re rushing out the door, in line at the grocery store or just before you turn off the light at bedtime. As your child gains more language skills (typically around the 3-4-year-old mark), you’re probably hearing a lot of questions. Read on to understand why-they-ask-why and how to best support them.
WHAT’S GOING ON? Asking “WHY?” is actually a sign of your child’s increasing curiosity, growing language skills and his or her desire to participate in the back and forth of conversation. Your toddler has an unstoppable desire to learn about the world and figure out how things work, and this includes her keen observation of what’s going on around her and then trying to put it all together like puzzle pieces. It can be a complicated puzzle to figure it all out! Curiosity drives your young child’s exploration, and from this context emerges the question of “Why?” As parents, we want our children to learn to think for themselves, have a strong desire to learn and persist at problem-solving. So, as much as the why phase can feel challenging at times, asking “Why?” is a signal that all this development is happening. Your toddler is thriving!
Encourage Your Child’s Curiosity. By responding to your child’s questions, you help to propel your child’s thinking and learning. You also encourage her curiosity and boost her confidence. Your child thinks, when I ask mommy or daddy, “why,” they respond! This feels very powerful to your child and spurs on their learning.

Try This: When you tell your 4-year old not to touch a glass object and he asks, “why?” rather than a lengthy explanation about the properties of glass, you can simply explain that glass can break, and then give him something else more suitable to hold. The
 question itself doesn’t
 need a complex answer. A simple response acknowledges your child’s question, provides a little learning (that glass can break) and more importantly, it shows that you are listening and willing to participate in a conversation.

Engage in Back-and-Forth Dialogue. When your child asks ‘Why?’ take this as a cue that he wants to verbally interact with you. Why is an easy word that your child has heard from you and other grown ups? Toddlers learn about language and practice the skills of conversation by imitating what they hear and see others do. Asking “why” is an indicator that your child wants to be part of the back and forth of conversation. She is learning more about how this interaction works and trying it out.

Try this: You may be relieved to hear that not every why needs a direct answer. An open-ended response such as ‘Hmm, I wonder why...’ (a phrase we say frequently to support the children at my Toddler Center) gives your child the opportunity to think for herself and come to her own conclusion. An open-ended response also reinforces the idea that there can be more than one right answer, helping your little one feel confident in his own ideas. Why? Because he doesn’t have to worry about being right.

Make Questioning Fun. You can also look for opportunities to make answering “why?” questions interactive and fun. Plan a nature walk to explore the questions of why trees have leaves, or design a kitchen experiment to figure out why ice melts. These are ways to celebrate the exciting process of curiosity and discovery. I think of this process as a zig-zaggy path. Your child needs ample time and space for wonder, play, exploration, and imagination. Why questions are certain to come out of those adventures in discovery. These open-ended experiences are what drive curiosity and ultimately answer as well as lead to the question, Why?

This is an exciting time in your child’s development as she grabs onto the power of language and searching for answers. “Why” questions may feel like a challenge, but I assure you that it’s a positive step and more complex and loaded questions will come in short time, such as ‘where do babies come from?’ For now, enjoy the simpler line of questioning, along with your child’s natural curiosity and wonder of the world.
Have insights or “why” questions of your own? Share your comments on Twitter and when you post a question on Facebook I do my best to answer you directly. And on another subject entirely, check out my recent comments on Good Morning America regarding gender biases in advertising to children.

For more toddler insight, visit HOW TODDLERS THRIVE and feel free to share what you've read here with other parents on the playground!

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