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My wife and I had joked about expecting endless "why?" questions from our son while we were expecting, and I thought I was prepared for it.

In fact, I thought the stereotypical constant flow of "why? why? why?" would be trivial, since I enjoy explaining things. I was confident that anything I couldn't explain, I could answer by "let's look it up!".

Now that my son has entered that phase, though, the reality is that there are lots of "why?" questions that completely flummox me.

"Why?" has become a catch-all response in some situations, and I simply can't answer some of them (e.g. while trying to explain something by pointing out a previous example: "remember when we went to the park?" followed by "why?"). Other times, it seems almost reflexive, and the answer seems fairly obvious to me (e.g. "Do you want french toast or pancakes for breakfast?" followed by "why?").

I don't want to discourage his curiosity. On the contrary: I want to answer as many of his questions as possible. Is there a good strategy for dealing with the "why?" questions that simply don't make sense?

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10 Answers 10

up vote 42 down vote accepted

I'm probably going to experience this situation pretty soon, too. One very interesting idea I've picked up a long time ago is not to accept a short "why" but encourage a full-sentence question.

Requiring a full sentence forces the child to actually think about the topic before asking.
What is the topic? What do I want to know? How can I phrase that?
This is excellent training for thinking smartly about things later in life, and it clearly shows that more effort in the input yields better results.

It also has two immediate wins for you:

  1. You can easily dismiss a "why" if it's annoying you.
  2. Making the "why" a little more difficult might make him dismiss the question unless he really wants to know.

Your challenge is to be consistent about this... why should you get to choose when a short "why" is acceptable? If you're too lazy to enforce the full sentence, then you can't expect the effort on his part either.

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Many children (including my own) will start 'the why thing' before being able to formulate sentences at will. –  sammy Feb 14 '13 at 19:44
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+1 I have a 4 year old and a 2 year old and this has worked well with both. Even if they don't have a wide vocabulary, encouraging a more specific answer helps to strengthen the language skills they already have. I've often helped by offering a couple different "Why" questions for them. –  JDB Feb 15 '13 at 17:14
    
I was lucky enough that my son actually never used pure whys and always asked full sentences. He still managed to get out quite long chains of them. But -- and I miss this in your answer, Torben -- I have been consistent in answering all his full sentence questions and am today very happy about a child that has learned from me to think for himself and find his own answers, because he witnessed my arguments and how I developed my answers, and, most of all, to question, to inquire, to be curious and want to learn. Because the why phase is part of the learning to think about the world phase. –  what Sep 5 '13 at 19:38
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@what Thank you, and you're right of course: if my keeps asking valid questions (and the does!) then I'm obliged to keep answering them...! I've found that I can often turn the question around and help him come up with his own answer, rather than me providing every answer for him. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 5 '13 at 21:45

I usually respond to endless 'why's with questions that focus on critical thinking. "Do you want french toast or pancakes for breakfast?" "Why?" "Well, which do you think would make your tummy happier?" "Why?" "We eat because we want happy bodies and happy tummies..." and at least with my two, it eventually winds down. Or maybe my questions overload their little minds and they get temporarily choked on all the new ideas.

Sounds to me, though, that his "why"'s are really just "more conversation please" requests. If he answers the french toast vs. pancakes question, then the conversation is over.

And of course, if the conversation starts to delve into the truly odd, feel free to be silly. "Well, pancakes make your tummy want to sing "twinkle twinkle little star" and french toast makes your tummy sing "modern major general". Which song do you think your tummy wants to sing?"

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+1 for "more conversation please" –  antony.trupe Feb 14 '13 at 1:51
    
The silly is exactly the route we took after the 'why' passed its useful stage:-) –  Rory Alsop Feb 14 '13 at 10:04
    
+1 for "more conversation please." I was going to add an explanation/anecdote, but I'm getting a "420 characters too long" message, so I'll just add another answer. –  Ossum's Mom Nov 17 '13 at 13:48

I love the answers I've gotten so far, but I thought I might as well chime in and describe what I have been doing, since its a little... different.

Generally, I try to answer his questions as best I can... within reason. Many of his questions I can answer fairly clearly, and do so (e.g. Q:"why [is the kitty afraid of me]?" A:"because you're much bigger than her, and you're loud!", or Q:"why [can't I stand on the chair]?" A:"because we don't want you to fall down and get hurt!").

However, for ones that require much more complicated answers that I don't know off the top of my head, are far too complicated for him to understand yet, or for which I simply don't have enough time to launch into a detailed exposition, I summarize it with one word. To this end, I've developed some broad categories of one-word answers that cover almost any situation: "biology", "genetics", "physics", "gravity", "thermodynamics", "special relativity", "chemistry", "economics", and "tradition" are the most frequently used.

I do tend to play fast and loose with some of those (anything involving time gets lumped under "special relativity", for example, even though the topics rarely involve objects in motion), and sometimes I pick one as a silly answer when the "why?" question seems particularly silly (e.g. "stop hitting yourself on the head with your sippy cup!" "why?" "gravity!"; and yes, that's an actual example :P).

We actually started this game with just one catch-all answer of "gravity", which helped set the tone for it as a game, but I eventually decided that having a variety of answers/non-answers was more appropriate and useful. My hope is that the diversity of one-word answers gives him some indication of how much variety there is out there, while also letting him know that I am trying to provide information, but some of it is just too big to convey easily.

This gives me the option of either educating or dismissing, without seeming dismissive, on a case-by-case basis. I do still, on occasion, say "I don't know" when appropriate, but if that is followed up with a "why?" then the answer is invariably "gravity".

It is interesting to see how he reacts to it, as he definitely has favorites of the categories, and it leads to some pretty amusing conversations. For example:

Me: "She [our daycare provider] has a cold."

Son: "Why?"

Me: "Biology."

Son: "No!"

Me: "No? Not biology?"

Son: "No, daddy, not biology! Thermonynamics!" (I think that was a pretty good attempt for 2 years old!)

Me: (laughing) Thermodynamics?

Son: Yes. Thermonynamics!

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With one little one I know, everyone in the family has a different one-word answer. Mom says "economics," Gramma says "science," I say "math." She will sometimes answer her own "why"s with her companion's favorite one word answer. –  J.T. Grimes Feb 14 '13 at 20:40
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We do this too, except we usually say "I can explain it after you've learned quantum mechanics in school." (He's in pre-K and waiting patiently.) –  KitFox Feb 15 '13 at 11:25
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@What I do try and answer as best I can, as a general rule, but questions like "why did I put my toy there?" (and yes, my son sometimes asks us to explain his own motivations for seemingly random things!) are fundamentally problematic, and even less problematic questions can become problematic when there are 20-30 in a row (again, not unusual for my son). When my son asked me why the sky was blue, I gave him an answer about the refraction of various wavelengths of light. When he asked (for the eighth time) why we weren't leaving the grocery store for the toy store, I answered "economics". –  Beofett Sep 5 '13 at 19:44
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Also, almost 7 months later, and the "why" stage has not ended for us :) Probably because my son literally does not seem to stop talking for more than a couple of minutes from the moment he wakes up until he falls asleep. –  Beofett Sep 5 '13 at 19:46
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SCIENCE –  unor Sep 9 '13 at 16:37

Although I have no personal experience with the 'why' phase yet, I imagine that the occasional: "What do you think?" thrown back at him would give you a few seconds to catch your breath. More importantly, it could give you a lot of insight into how your child perceives the world, and what type of answer from you would be meaningful for him. However, I don't think you can really stop the whys coming. When kids realize that things have causal relationships, they're obsessed with that knowledge for a while. And it takes them a while to understand causality completely, hence the unusual moments when he asks why.

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That's a good one, and what I often do: Make him think, because that way he learns that he can find an answer by using the knowledge he already has. And after some time you begin to see that instead of asking why he will begin to discuss his ideas with you (that's what my six year old does). The other half of this teaching him to think is that I let him know when I don't know the answer, and let him witness how I find it (e.g. look it up). That shows him that knowledge is not simply in my head but that I can put it there, and so can he. And he does, by reading -- and by making things up :-) –  what Sep 5 '13 at 19:48

Part of it is curiosity, but kids also take a lot of pleasure in controlling their parents. It's only fair, I guess. After a certain point, they're just pushing their boundaries to see how far they can take it, and it becomes a game rather than a learning opportunity.

After you recognize it has turned into a game, you can either play along or just say something like "that's enough." Just keep in mind he's not really expecting an intelligent answer to his nonsensical questions.

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I actually have turned it into a game... I have default answers that include "thermodynamics", "special relativity", "biology", "chemistry", "economics", "tradition" and "genetics". However, our favorite by far is "gravity"... its amazing how often that is actually the correct answer! –  Beofett Feb 13 '13 at 20:28
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@Beofett - I nominate you for coolest dad! –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Feb 13 '13 at 21:54
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@Beofett and that leads to your kids saying awesome stuff like "Mommy says it tastes good because of the way the taste chemicals tickle my brain." –  KitFox Feb 15 '13 at 11:21
    
What many parents don't notice is that by asking "why" children learn what this word does. They are not interested in your answer, but in the fact that you answer. And my development psychology textbook says that you need to repeat a verbal instruction 200 times to a child until he has learned it. So grant him 200 whys and answer them so that he understands. You'll see that his why phase is quickly over. –  what Sep 5 '13 at 19:41

I usually encourage my child to ask a more specific question. My 4-year old asks "Why?", to which I respond "Do you mean 'what were our reasons for going to the park?' Or do you mean 'what is the connection between the two examples?'"

I tell my children that I will try to answer any of their questions, but that "Why?" is not a question in and of itself. Encouraging them to ask more specific questions has opened up some very interesting dialogue. Getting them to think through the question they want to ask has really helped to enrich our dialogue, and I've gotten a lot of compliments from other parents who are amazed at how well they can converse.

Requesting more specific questions also helps to ferret out the "Why?"'s that are used purely as a stall tactic, which also happens frequently.

"Why?"
"Can you ask a more specific question?"
"No... I just want to know why..."
"Ok... when you think of a more specific question, I'll try to answer it."
"Hmph"

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I came across a very interesting study on the topic a while ago, when my youngest was still at this age, and I managed to find it again. Unfortunately it's in French, but I'll summarize it here.

Basically, the article says that kids ask questions because they really want to find out. They want explanations. But the key is to give them exactly the amount of information that they are able to handle, which is more an art than science :) They will keep asking again and again if they haven't received an answer that satisfies them. And the study showed that, very often, we seem to provide more information than what they are looking for.

So there doesn't seem to be a single, perfect method to handle yes questions, or at least the experts haven't figured it out yet.

But what I took from this is that it's very important to keep answering. I think you are handling this perfectly well. And maybe your son is right, maybe the right answer is Thermodynamics :)

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This is just what I believe and do! I'm so sad when I witness parents who stunt the intelligence and knowledge of their children by choking their questions. Children are born to learn. And they don't just learn the answers you give them, they learn how to communicate and think. –  what Sep 5 '13 at 19:55

I've learned to turn the tables on my toddler and start asking them questions. I first quizzed him on baby animals: what do you call a baby (dog, cat, duck etc.)? But this was easily extended to asking them questions about our environment, or their own likes etc.

This seems to satisfy the same thirst for knowledge and interaction but allows us parents a reprieve from the barrage of questions.

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Here's the reason I upped Valkyrie's answer (for "more conversation, please"), when there were so many good ones:

My daughter went through a several-month "what would happen if...?" stage before she entered her "Why?" stage. (Silly me, I thought we were doing the first instead of the second, but we ended up doing both.) I was sort of enjoying both questions until I noticed she would ask the same question several times, and this would fairly drive me up the wall. Finally (when she was 2-3, I don't remember, exactly) I asked her in exasperation why she had asked me again the question she had asked me minutes earlier -- was she forgetting, not paying attention, or what? She answered that she did remember, she just liked to hear me tell her the answer. (Boy, did I feel like a wretch for my exasperation!) So I asked her if she could please phrase the question that way: "Mommy, can you tell me again why...?" And she did, which made the questions much easier to re-answer.

Sort of...

"Mommy, can you tell me again why they want to kill the old red rooster when she comes? Was he bad?"

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Next time one of mine asks me the same question ad nauseum (I still have one in the middle of this phase), I'm going to remember this answer and then maybe I can be more patient and "in the moment" instead of trying to keep him entertained while I do all the other things we parents do to keep the glass balls in the air. –  Valkyrie Nov 18 '13 at 12:15

When I'm in my spouse's company, I just re-ask her the same question.

The kid sometimes listens, sometimes forgets about the question and sometimes notices that my attention moves away from her and interrupts into the dialog with her own explanation.

It looks like this:

Daughter: "Dad, why the sun rises late in the winter"?

Me: "That's a good question, dear! Let me ask mom. Mom, why the sun rises late in the winter"?

Mom: "Well, it's because the Earth's axis is inclined … (and so on)"

Daughter, after 2 minutes: "No! It's because it's cold in the winter and the sun doesn't want to get out of bed into the cold!" (or whatever).

If we are alone and whys keep coming on a rate above appropriate, I pretend (or sometimes don't even pretend) to call the spouse and do the same routine.

The kid sees that I actually try to answer the question but knows that if she asks questions too often she will lose my attention.

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