Why do Children Ask ‘Why’?

When my oldest son was 4 he asked a lot of “why” questions. “Why do people have bones that are hard?” “Why are frogs green?” “Why is this puzzle piece shaped like this?”

It got to be exhausting. I felt as a responsible parent I should provide my son with answers, but some “why” questions are hard to answer if you are not a walking encyclopedia. It is tough on your ego not to be able answer a 4 year old. There were also the times when I did know the answers. I would launch into a lecture on the migrating patterns of the Canadian geese visiting our backyard. After about 30 seconds his eyes would glaze over and he would run to play on the swings. What was up with that?

Parents do not need to feel inadequate if they don’t have the answers or take the podium when they do have knowledge to share. Most experts agree that when children ask questions out of curiosity they are really saying, “That is so interesting, I would like to figure this out myself or with a little bit of help from an adult.” That is why it is more effective to say to a young child, “That is a great question. Why do you think the sky is blue?” “What an interesting question, can you think of some reasons why the rain makes mud?”

When we answer a “why” question with another “why” question we encourage children to think for themselves and explore their own ideas. Serious “why” questions merit discussion and preferably it should be a child directed dialogue. There is nothing a child loves more than having an adult who is genuinely interested in what they have to say. Kids want to come up with their own answers and it gives them something to mull over. It also helps them develop critical thinking skills. Children feel important when we ask them their opinion it builds their self esteem.

This technique of responding “why do you think?” to our children’s “why” questions, benefits us adults as well. It gives us an idea of what children are thinking about and reminds us to stop and appreciate our wonderful world through the eyes of kids. Children love to engage us in this way. It is a great way to bond with our children. Learning together in a respectful way is a great way to nurture your relationship with your child.

Children may also ask “why” as a way of voicing their concerns. Children don’t come out and directly tell you what is bothering them. Sometimes they do not have the words to describe their inner feelings. When they ask, “Why do I have to go to school?” They might not be trying to “get out of” what they are supposed to be doing. They may be letting you know that they are having a problem with their teacher, peers or their work.

When your child is using “why” to express his worries or fears, he/she is trying to engage you in a discourse. To help your child work through their emotions it can be effective to reflect your child’s feelings. You can say, “You sound upset about school” or “Something seems to be bothering you about school.” This helps open the channels of communication. A child will start to feel comfortable exploring their complex feelings. Reflecting a child’s feelings instead of jumping in and trying to fix the problem helps to keep the conversation flowing. This allows parents to understand a child’s perspective so they can give them the support that they need to manage their problem.

There is another reason why children ask “why.” They may use it as a way to fight against the limits that you set. “Why” questions can be used to defy you and sidetrack you from sticking to your guns. “Why can’t I get another lollipop?” “Why do you always make me wear a hat?” “Why won’t you let me get that video game?” These kinds of questions should send up a red flag.

Children enjoy a good debate and love to try to get you to change your mind. They have plenty of energy for this task. They will ask and ask as a way to confuse you. They hope that the endless questions will wear down all your resistance. They force you into a position where you feel you need to explain yourself and come up with arguments to support your rules. It is a technique that I think I have seen Bugs Bunny use.

In this situation it is effective to use both of the skills outlined above. You can reflect children’s feelings and gently and firmly turn their “Why” question back to them. You can say, “You seem sad about the one lollipop rule, why do you think we have that rule?” “It sounds like your annoyed with your hat, why do you think it is important for people to wear hats?” “You are wishing you can get that video game. Can you tell me why you can’t get it?”

This approach is a soft way of reminding your child that you understand their frustration but that you are confident and staunch in your ability to maintain your non-negotiable rules. You will not be drawn into a series of circular and moot arguments. It is ironic but experts have found that children feel more comfortable and secure when parents do not back down from the rules they set. Although they will fight long and hard children do want to lose these arguments. As soon as they see you mean business they will quickly leave you alone. It is a way for parent’s to respond without actually saying the hated “no”. The endless, never ending arguments will be short- circuited.

This technique also benefits children in other ways. It requires children to think about why rules are important and what the reasons are behind rules. It actually reinforces the limits parents have set, in their minds. They gain a perspective they otherwise would not have. It also forces the child to take our answers more seriously encourages them to become more cooperative.

Children’s can use “why” questions for many different purposes. They can use them to get answers about the world around them, to voice their fears and to gain the upper hand. It is important to recognize why your child is asking “why” so that you can respond appropriately. Reflecting your child’s feelings and and turning their “why” questions back to them is the best way to do that.

Guest post by Adina Soclof. For more great parenting tips like these, visit us at www.parentingsimply.com. We look forward to hearing from you.

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  1. Very nicely written! Thank you for reminding me that sometimes I am doing the right things by asking my son “why” questions and taking the time to listen to him. As a single parent, I don’t get feedback from another engaged adult while these learning opportunities are happening, and it often takes moments/articles like these to remind me to keep up the good work.

    I especially like how you wrapped up the article in the last paragraph. If my busy brain remembers later on, I would like to write the paragraph down and post as a reminder for why my son asks “why” so much and that it doesn’t always mean I need to have all the answers. Thanks again!

  2. Thank you for the article-I once told a friend I answered why questions with my own why questions, and she said she tried not to be glib with her answers. But I don’t think it’s being glib at all, I thought I was being engaging and encouraging my children to come up with their own answers.