What A Kid Really Means When They Ask, 'Why?'

Photo: Rostislaff K, Reshot

Little kids are notorious for asking incessant questions, the most common variety being the endless, “Why?” And we try to answer them - we always swore we’d be the parent who would encourage their curiosity, after all - but sometime between the fifth and tenth “why?” you’re either over it or you’re out of answers.

But imagine if, instead of “why?”, they’re actually saying, “Tell me more.” Physician and author Alan Greene puts it this way:

By the time children are able to speak in sentences, it sounds deceptively like they mean the same thing we do. This happens at about the same time their curiosity, imagination, and creativity skyrocket.

They begin to ask, “Why?” “Why?!?!” “WHY, Mummy, WHYYYYY?”

I’ve found that, when I try to answer children at this stage of development with the reason for something, they are left cold. After conversing with thousands of children, I’ve decided that what they really mean is, “That’s interesting to me. Let’s talk about that together. Tell me more, please?”

When they ask why dogs walk on four legs, they’re really telling you that dogs are interesting to them and can we talk more about dogs? If you think about it that way and allow yourself to be swept up in a dialogue about dogs and how they compare to people or other animals, you are quenching their curiosity while also avoiding the rapid-fire interrogation.

Lifehacker health editor Beth Skwarecki recently told me about the time her son asked her, “Why did our pet die?” After they’d talked about it for a while, she realised he didn’t want to know the why. He wasn’t specifically asking what caused their pet’s death. He wanted to better understand death itself.

With my foster son, I learned to narrate what we were seeing around us. I’d talk about how fast the other cars were driving, the lyrics in the song on the radio or the big storm clouds ahead. I’d say, “Ah, look! Another bridge is coming up, but this one is green, not brown like the last one,” before he could point to it and say, “What’s that??” He needed to connect; I needed to not answer the same question 50 times.

So the next time your kid asks you why the grass is green or why butterflies have such big wings or why thunder is so loud, think of it less like a Q&A session and more like an opportunity to talk about nature and wildlife and weather. They’ll be so delighted at all the excess knowledge — and your attention — that they might not even think to follow it up with another, “why?”


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