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I recently tried to explain to my daughter (3 years old) that she was crying a lot because she was exhausted. The reason she was so tired was because she did not sleep after lunch. When asking her why she sang rather than trying to sleep, she told me "I did not sleep because I cry a lot". Obviously she does not understand the words because and why (not that I am surprised given her age). But, how can I explain these words to her? Or how can I ask my questions another way so she can give me relevant answers?

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    To me, that sounds like she does understand "because". At 3, it's not reasonable to expect her to understand that her lack of sleep after lunch is why she is so tired now. All she knows is that now it is bedtime, but she is crying. That is why she did not sleep: because she was crying instead of sleeping. – Justin Nov 13 '15 at 19:07
  • I've found that asking a 3yo "why" they do anything is not going to get good results. It's not the language that's the problem, its them actually knowing (or not knowing, rather) their motivations for doing anything, especially if you wait and ask them after the activity is over. – JPhi1618 Nov 13 '15 at 19:48
  • @Justin All she knows is that now it is bedtime, but she is crying. That is why she did not sleep: because she was crying instead of sleeping. Not at all; she was not crying when it's bedtime. But you're probably right that it's not reasonable to expect her to understand the reason she is tired. – piwi Nov 13 '15 at 19:59
  • @JPhi1618 I'm probably expecting her to understand something too complicated for her age, as you and Justin point out. Thanks. – piwi Nov 13 '15 at 20:01
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    Sometimes the cause and reason are simply transposed: my 3-year-old is currently screaming "too much jelly because I don't like it!" when trying to express the reason his sandwich is not satisfactory. – Acire Nov 14 '15 at 16:07
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She understands the words just fine, what she doesn't understand is the underlying cause. Kids that age live very much in the moment. Past and present get jumbled in their mind, and they don't pause to reflect on their motivation.

Somehow parents can't resist asking why anyway, but I can count on one hand the number of times I've received an answer that makes sense to me. Just resign yourself to it being the parent's job to figure out why, and if you're lucky, your kids will confirm it for you.

  • "That requires abstract reasoning skills that they don't really develop until puberty or so." A source for this claim (and why puberty?) would be much appreciated, in light of the claims made. – anongoodnurse Nov 14 '15 at 2:40
  • @anongoodnurse: An example from a psychology 101 course: "Put your coat on because it is cold outside". Apparently doesn't make any sense to a very young child because it is one level too complex, and suddenly around age three they get it. Obviously a long time before puberty. – gnasher729 Nov 15 '15 at 21:05
  • @gnasher729 - I agree that they have abstract reasoning, as well as an understanding of right, wrong, and potential pain to others at three years of age, and this very age-dependent acquisition has been researched and proven in order to evaluate the ability of children to testify as witnesses in criminal cases. Frankly, the OP's claims seems to be simple anecdote. Hence the request for sources. "Past and present get jumbled in their mind, and they don't pause to reflect on their motivation." To use anecdote to answer a question is unfortunately common. – anongoodnurse Nov 16 '15 at 3:29
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You can explain the difference (if you must explain it) by saying Why asks the question and Because tells the answer.

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