Adult: “Please hold my hand as we cross the street.”
Adult: “So I can make sure you’re safe.”
Adult: “Because that’s my job and I love you!”
Adult: “Let’s get some bananas when we stop at the grocery store”
Adult: “So we have them as an option for breakfast or snacks”
Adult: “Because they’re your favorite and I want to have options you like”
Children are naturally curious – about the world around them, relationships, the power of their own voice and so on. A common phase that young children go through is the relentless “why” response. As adults it can be hard to continually respond to that thread of dialogue. Here are a few relevant ideas about children’s development as it relates to the “why” stage as well as some tips to get through it!
Acquiring new information – young children are in the midst of making a massive amount of brain connections and have a natural sense of curiosity. The repetitive asking of “why” indicates an understanding that there is even more information to acquire and an understanding of the mechanism for gathering such knowledge.
Enjoying and extending relationships – while it is very possible children are asking “why” to gather new information, it is equally likely that they are enjoying their interaction with you. They have observed the conversational patterns people use to engage in dialogue with one another and want to extend that experience with you. They are still developing all the social nuances of engaging others in meaningful discussion so may be reliant on mechanisms that keep the interaction going – that is, a prompt that requires you to keep responding.
Developing autonomy and power – another key component of children’s learning at this stage is recognizing their own power, control, and ability to affect a situation. By asking you “why” and eliciting a response from you, their sense of social contribution and power is reinforced.
Challenging limits and boundaries – there are a number of ways that children learn social limits and boundaries. By asking “why” repeatedly, while it may feel like they are testing the boundary of your patience, they are learning the limits of investigating information in one context – both their curiosity and available knowledge.
Tips and Strategies
Answer the questions – I know, I know, it gets tiresome. But continually responding to young children’s inquiries satisfies each of the developmental components listed above.
Encourage children to express their ideas – you don’t have to be the only person in the conversation who has the answers! Turn the conversation around and ask children what they think, what they already know, or what their prediction is. This will give you a break but also develop the sense that their ideas are important and valuable.
Stall – you don’t have to answer every question immediately. You can buy time and a small break from the repetition by simply saying, “that’s a good question, I’m not sure. Let me think for a minute.” And then resume the conversation with a relevant response or related way to think about the child’s interest.
Look information up – no need to bear the pressure of having all the answers. You can change the script of the dialogue and take a break from coming up with ideas by relying on other resources – books, internet search, and so on.
Keep it playful and light – even when you feel frustrated, try and keep it silly. Smiling, laughing, and pointing out your child’s ability to ask interesting and engaging questions can keep the relationship dynamic positive and relaxed. Simple phrases that focus on character strengths can serve many of the same developmental benefits listed above. You can try saying things like “You are so curious!” “I enjoy hearing what you’re wondering about.” or “Sometimes you ask questions that are tricky for me to answer!”
Tag out – of course there are many times you are going to be alone with your child and not have access to other support. When you can, engage another person to respond to your child’s queries. That might be another person nearby or calling/video chatting a loved one that would enjoy the time connecting.
Most importantly, remember that, like all childhood phases, this phase is temporary too. As exhausting as this phase may be, it won’t last forever. But the development that you support during this time will. Keeping your energy focused on the relationship, autonomy and curiosity you are supporting can help you persevere and simultaneously support your child’s growth and learning.