When Children Ask “Why?”
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Children, especially young children, ask a million questions. There are memes and tropes and jokes about the questions children ask, and about the responses adults give. Maybe the reason “Because I said so!” became the irked end to a trail of questions is because we just ran out of words!
That curiosity is precious, and we never want to stifle it. Big questions and small ones, we take this responsibility of answering questions very seriously, it’s a huge responsibility, and the weight of that responsibility can be what squishes out the “because I said so!” in tired or exasperated moments.
Here’s the thing: while sharing knowledge and being present to a child’s queries is admirable, they’re not all real questions. If they’re not all real questions, it takes a bit of the burden from answering every one of them. In fact, it doesn’t always help to answer these questions.
When might a question not be a real question?
1) When it’s a reflex.
This is so often the case when a child asks, “why?” and is usually in response to our own question. We ask a child, “would you please clean up?” and they ask “why?” without even thinking about it. We often answer, because you’re picked up, or because it’s time for lunch, or any number of logical reasons.
So logical, in fact, a child is very capable of answering these questions themselves. Here’s a trick, try, “why do you think?”
This isn’t sarcastic or passive-aggressive. While we know the answer, it’s best to ask in a genuine tone. Putting the question back to a child helps them to think for themselves, and helps to develop logical thinking. Problem-solving comes from logical thinking, and when a child starts to answer their own questions, they become less dependent on adults to do things for them, but rather we get to enjoy things with them.
Additionally, this helps when “why?” truly has become a reflex, and a child doesn’t even realize they’re saying it. When a child is met with, “why do you think?” it draws kind and gentle awareness to the fact that they have developed a habit of relying on someone else to do the logic-ing for them, rather than thinking for themselves. Like biting fingernails or cracking knuckles, we’d rather help children work through unconscious habits before they’re more deeply ingrained.
2) When it’s just carrying on the conversation.
Children love the adults in their lives, and they love to talk. Our attention is divided a million ways, so when children have it, they drink it in like water or the sun. More really is better in this situation, and children figure out very early on if you say, “why?” an adult will probably keep talking.
Children are trying to acquire as much language, and as much knowledge, as quickly as possible. Even if a child doesn’t understand what I’m saying, it’s the words and the syntax and the grammar that are captivating. It’s how I move my mouth and those diphthongs and what’s that sound I never get quite right? Here, I’ll ask “why” and get more data. It’s hitting “yes please!” in the pleasure centers of the brain, and this unquenchable thirst is rarely satisfied.
“Many wonderful and creative stories started in just this way, the wild answers to “why” and the “what if” questions.”
This is also true when we’re asking something of a child and they’re using conversation to procrastinate, or as a stalling tactic. It’s time to clean up. Why? Because it’s time for bed. Why? Because you need to sleep? But why? (this is usually when “BECAUSE I SAID SO!” falls out)
So, what’s the answer here? Sometimes, again, “what do you think?” Children can also participate in conversation, and finding out their thoughts can help grow conversation skills; while babies depend on us to do all the talking, as children age they’re more able to participate in the back-and-forth of conversation, and engaging children in this skill when they’re young can help them to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts when the stakes are a bit higher, like in middle school and into adulthood. Just as they are captivated by what we say when they’re young, we’re deeply interested in what they say, though perhaps for different reasons.
3) when a child is processing something.
This is a bit of thinking out loud for a child. We’re not just regurgitating facts, we’re creating order and sense in the world, and one of the ways we figure things out is through asking questions. Why is the sky blue? When was I born? How do flowers grow? Children are making connections and figuring out the world, and their questions are a reflection of this growing sense of order.
Perhaps we’ve fallen into answering one of these questions a time or two, and met the blank stare or frustration or other emotion that comes with answering a question that wasn’t intended to be answered. Responding to “where did I come from?” with a sigh and a cough and a big talk about biology could be a lot, when a child responds later with, “well, yeah, but Sammi’s family comes from Georgia, where do I come from?”
Again, it’s a gift, to yourself and to the child, to ask, “what do you think?”
When a child is asking a question to process, giving space and time for them to process aloud is respectful.
When a child is asking a big, deep question, we’re buying time, or sometimes saving ourselves from answering a question that wasn’t actually asked.
When a child is figuring out the world, and they get to share their opinions, we’re sending the message that sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re learning. We’re getting a clue about their logic, sweet stories to share with grandparents and friends, a snapshot of their development and thought process at this moment in time. The facts are important, but then again, so is the logical thinking behind creative, though incorrect ideas. Many wonderful and creative stories started in just this way, the wild answers to “why” and the “what if” questions.
There are almost as many reasons why children ask questions as there are questions to be asked. Each question, and the reason behind it, is as unique as the child asking. And yet, the answer can often, joyfully, respectfully, honestly be, “what do you think?”
Written by:Charlotte Snyder