Watching the wonder of a child is enchanting. Witnessing a child’s curiosities can be captivating. Hearing the multitude of questions a three-year-old can come up with in one car ride can be, well, exhausting.
Are you interested in harnessing more of that feel-good energy and letting go of “because I said so” responses?
“Why?” is a vitally important question. Understanding the motives for the questions children ask, and knowing what to say in return, is incredibly valuable. Read on for three important reasons behind the questions children ask, and ideas for how to respond.
Three Reasons Behind “Why?”
Three main categories appear and reappear as the purposes behind a child’s questions: 1) to gain attention, 2) to overcome a fear, and 3) to create understanding.
- Gain Attention Questions
Here’s the scene: it’s a weekday evening, and you are preparing dinner in your kitchen while your child plays nearby. You are focused on the task at hand: preparing a healthy meal for your family in a timely manner. You are trying a new recipe that is bound to please everyone this time around, (fingers crossed!) but your unfamiliarity with the recipe is keeping you quite preoccupied. Wanting to be present for your child, you keep stopping to answer your child’s questions. This is causing the meal-making process that should have taken about an hour seem like it’s dragging on into eternity.
In the meantime, your own mind starts asking questions: “Why are these questions coming now? How does your child come up with so many different iterations? When will they stop?”
Take a breath. Really. Yes, you, the reader. Even if your child isn’t currently peppering you with questions, it’s a good habit to be able to take a deep breath whenever you need to pause for a moment. Let it out. Okay. Let’s continue…
In that moment you stopped to take a breath, with some practice, you can also learn to identify where these questions are likely coming from. Once their desires have been met satisfactorily, the child will very likely stop asking questions, and both of you can experience a bit more ease with your individual tasks.
Let’s face it: a sense of control over a situation is pretty empowering for most people, and children are no exception! This, combined with the reality that young children aren’t in charge very often sometimes leads a child to find ways to manipulate the situation in order to gain the attention of the adult.
In this particular situation, the child notices you are preoccupied with another task. If their attention is not caught up in something just as captivating, they are likely going to want your attention to refocus on them. Children love direct interaction with you! Asking questions to gain attention often happens when you are at the supermarket, fixing dinner, on your phone, driving in your car, or at bedtime, whenever your attention is easily divided.
- Respond to Gaining Attention
Regardless of the question at hand, the desire for attention needs to be addressed. So, whether your child has asked why the sky is blue or why the dinosaurs died, it is important that you connect with them directly.
Rather than answering while continuing to add ingredients to your jambalaya, find a place where you can stop, get down on their level, and answer their question. Then, either let them know that you need to focus on your task, and will stop to check in with them again soon, or better yet, invite them to join you!
If you feel you need to continue on your own, make sure you stop yourself along the way to check in with your child. Perhaps set a timer or stop every quarter hour. Your ability to pause what you are doing and initiate contact with your child will allow them to see that they don’t need to control the situation, because you are reliable in your relationship.
If you can involve your child in what you are doing, that’s even better! Teach them how to peel shrimp and dip them in the batter! The time you put in teaching them how to participate in what you are doing allows for more connection, less desire for the child to manipulate the situation, an opportunity for learning, and eventually you’ll even have reliable help!
- Overcome Fear Questions
Have you ever noticed that in a new situation your child can seem to come up with an infinite number of questions? Here’s an example: It’s the first day of horse-riding lessons. Your child has been begging to learn to ride a horse for what seems like their entire life. It’s finally time. Your child has helped you pick out boots and a helmet, and they have been talking to their stuffed horses for weeks about this new opportunity. The excitement is palpable.
Fast forward to the car ride to the stables. From the moment you get in the car and for the next fifteen minutes your child is non-stop firing questions at you. Because they have your (mostly) undivided attention, you are doing your best to answer each question.
They keep coming:
- “why do I need to wear a helmet?”
- “why do my boots have big heels?”
- “why can’t you come up on the horse with me?”
- “what happens if the horse doesn’t want me to ride it?”
- “why are horses so big?”
Next, the questions become repetitive.
Remember that breath we talked about earlier? Take another one now. Make it deep, and give yourself a moment to let your brain clear.
With an extra moment to think and a big gulp of air to help clear your mind, you can identify a category for these questions. You realize that your child is embarking upon a new adventure, and perhaps with this new territory comes some anxiety about the unknown. Soon, you remember questions also happened before a new school year, doctor appointments, and birthday parties, too.
- Respond to Overcoming Fear
Once you’ve identified the questions as fear-based, it’s important to make sure you connect and encourage. The answers may help them to feel better about the upcoming situation, and, again, what they really need is connection.
When you arrive at the stables, take a few moments to look your child in the eyes. Pick them up or give them a hug. Reassure them you are there to support them and keep them safe.
- Create Understanding Questions
Here’s the last situation: Your child is having a playdate, and throughout the two-hour period has come to tattle on another child more times than you can count. You have intervened, ignored, and pleaded with your child to stop telling you about every interaction. Before you know it, here they come back with more to share. You have heard that the other child “won’t take turns,” “isn’t using their words,” and “took the toy away from me,” multiple times each. You’re tempted never to host another playdate again.
You find yourself taking a deep breath to clear your mind. In doing so, you realize that your child hasn’t been asking you questions directly. Upon listening carefully, you realize that the “why” is more implied than spoken, but it is still very much present.
Your child has been telling you about the other child’s actions, because they want to understand the other child’s behavior. Why won’t their friend take turns? Why aren’t they using their words to solve a problem? Why did they take that toy from me? And, are these things okay?
In situations like playdates, on the playground, or at school, when being told about another’s behavior, most often, a child is trying to define for themselves if the behavior is acceptable or not, and they are coming to you for support in how to respond. And, children don’t hold their comments simply to other children! Sometime, when an adult cuts in line or doesn’t pick up the piece of trash that missed the garbage can, your child might question you about the adult’s behavior, too!
- Respond to Creating Understanding
When children tell you about another’s behavior, listen. Really listen. Then, try to decipher the underlying question. Children are trying to learn about the world they live in and the rules they are asked to abide by. Their desire for consistency, repetition, and structure makes sense, because many experiences are new to them, and they are seeking rationale to orient their lives.
In the same way that we take time to explain the intricacies of the world at large to children, we also need to take the time to rationalize why we expect the behaviors we do. Why do we ask them to keep their hands to themselves? So that no one gets hurt. Why do we ask them to use their words? So that we can better understand them. Why do we ask them to share? So that others can enjoy a turn, too. Asking them to behave in a specific way, and expecting them to be okay with other people’s behaviors is impractical unless we can give reasons for the actions.
Adults are often quick to dismiss a child commenting on other behaviors. It occurs so often that it easily can feel like nagging. These observations, however, are healthy and necessary for their growth. The more patient and interested we can be during these brief periods, the more the children benefit. Every time you dismiss a child telling you about another’s behavior, you dismiss a social learning opportunity.
Why, Why, Why?
Whatever the reason (or however many times) a child asks questions, over and over, they are asking for connection, to us and to their world. Use their questions as a moment to develop relationship, and even consider asking their opinion before answering them. You do not need to have all of the answers.
The next time your child starts asking questions, allow yourself to pause for a moment or two. See if you can define what is behind their question. Give yourself and your child the time to connect, to be heard, and to learn together.