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When a child starts asking, “Why?” | mummymcauliffe

Family Life

Shouting why mummy
Feb 17

“Why has Grandad got no hair?”; “Why do girls sit down on the toilet and boys stand up?”; “Why do I have to go in my car seat?”; “Why haven’t we got any snow?”

Maybe I should have read up on when children begin asking “why?” as it’s completely taken me by surprise. It’s almost as if Little I woke up one morning and decided that she was no longer going to take anything in the world around her at face value, including anything I might tell her or ask her to do. Consequently, even the most mundane conversation such as “put your shoes on”, is promptly followed up with a barrage of “why?” questioning.

For the past week couple of weeks, most of my conversations with Little I have gone something like this:

Me: “Please can you put that in the recycling bin.”

Little I: “Why?”

Me: “Because it’s paper, and we can recycle paper.”

Little I: “Why?”

Me: “Well because it helps to save a few trees.”

Little I: “Why?”

Me: “Paper is made from trees, and so if we are recycling, it means less trees need to be chopped down.”

Little I: “Why?”…

According to experts, the “why?” stage marks a sudden upsurge in your child’s intellectual development. So as tiring as it might be, it’s a really exciting stage, and one that I have to admit I have been eagerly awaiting.

“When children are very young, they are necessarily very dependent on their Mums – or whoever their main carers may be – but at around two or three, something called “individuation” occurs, when they begin to become aware of themselves as individuals, and to see the gap between how the world is and how they want it to be,” says child educational psychologist Simon Cusworth. “The “Why?” questions start coming thick and fast as a child acquires more and more language and comprehension.”

I have felt a sudden pressure to be able to respond to all of Little I’s questions with accurate, fascinating facts. Now that she has entered the stage of discovery and seems to be soaking information up like a gigantic sponge, as a parent I feel it’s my responsibility to fill her head with as much information as I can about the world around her. Is this normal? I’m assuming that hopefully, it is. Above all else, I don’t want to be fobbing off my daughter with made-up answers – she’d probably see through that anyway!

As I’ve begun reading up on the subject a little more though, I’ve come across advice suggesting that it’s good for your child to know that you don’t have the answers to everything. To quote an article from Babyworld: “children can find it enormously reassuring and affirming to know that parents don’t know everything: it makes it ok for them to be lacking in knowledge themselves, and may ease feelings of inadequacy.” This has helped to make me feel a little reassured…although I could probably still do with swotting up on a few subjects secretly!

One approach we have been taking is to research a question that she has together online, mainly on YouTube. We haven’t yet found a topic that there isn’t a video for! I’ve also been building up a collection of fact-based children’s books, such as an animal encyclopaedia, a world atlas, a book on the solar system etc, which I’ve found she loves to browse through, even though she’s far too young for most of the content. I’m trying to keep this encouragement as informal and low-key as possible though, so that the interest is very much led by her.

But according to one children’s health expert that I’ve come across, when a young child is asking “why?”, they don’t always mean it in the same context as we interpret it. Dr. Alan Greene explains: “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 I’ve connected with children and begun to spin a tale to answer this question, they’ve sat enthralled. There was no need to mention because, or therefore, or cause, or effect. They don’t need to know why, all they need is animated attention and me saying whatever came to mind about that subject. After a brief interchange, we were both happy.”

I’m sharing this advice with you as I found it really rang true with me. On occasion, Little I’s “why’s” have been relentless, and I really haven’t been able to settle her curiosity about a particular subject, no matter how deep I’ve dug for an explanation. I think Dr Greene really has a point.

What I’ve found amusing is when I’ve experimented with throwing the “why?” question back at her, saying, “I don’t know, why do you think it is?” It hasn’t gone done well at all. On one occasion she got really quite frustrated, raised her voice and answered: “Mummy, stop asking me ‘why’!”

What did you do when your child began asking “why?” Please feel free to share your experiences and any advice below.

About the Author

Wendy McAuliffe

Social media & online PR consultant and trainer, and ex-journalist. Founder and Director of Populate Digital and Mum of two. Living by the sea in Bournemouth. @wendymcauliffe.

  • Jo

    It has started here as well.  We are reading a beautifully illustrated book from the library everyday at the moment called Little Boat and there are treacherous rocks in it!  I need to read up on treacherous rocks and what they can do to little boats, and how little boats might go about avoiding those rocks so I have a few answers when we no doubt read it again tomorrow.

    • http://twitter.com/wendymcauliffe wendymcauliffe

      Good luck with that! Maybe this is mother nature’s way of repairing the baby brain!

  • Janewakefield

    Wendy – wait until the ‘why’ moves on to ‘what is the point’ as in Archie’s recent ‘what actually is the point of living?’. Better start brushing up on your Satre and Baudrillard now if you want to do better than my “don’t know”….

    • http://twitter.com/wendymcauliffe wendymcauliffe

      Sounds like Archie may be an existentialist!

  • keilo

    I believe it is extremely important not to fob off a child with the answer ‘I don’t know.’ (This is of course different to when you genuinely don’t know, and can lead to lots of frantic googling!) I have seen this too many times in families where parents don’t seem to have time to spend with their children. I wouldn’t think it matters whether you choose to go down the path of explaining the root cause of the ‘why’, or simply sit with your child and do as Dr Greene suggests. I think both are equally progressive, and each scenario will depend on a number of factors, i.e. if the answer is in a ready-to-hand book, or the internet is available. One option I used to take when one of the three children I au paired for would ask ‘why’, was to sit with one, or all three, and draw diagrams to explain things. This often turned into a fun task for everyone to get involved in, and more questions would stem from anything they drew that was relevant.
    On a separate note, I believe more strongly than anything in turning the ‘why’ question around to your child, as Wendy McAuliffe suggests. Making a child think for themselves is an extremely benefical character trait. They can be taught to really think hard about the answer, and then can transpose this into empathy as they grow older. If they are taught to ask themselves why they made the decisions they did, they can maybe understand why others made theirs. It can start from an early age, for example, if you ask a child why did they draw that particular picture, in addition to commenting on how great it is and sticking it on the fridge. The answer may often surprise you! When they are older, you can ask questions such as ‘Why did you choose those clothes to put on today?, or, ‘How do you feel about your older brother going to school?’ or ‘Why do you think older brother will enjoy his first day at school?’ The timing for when these questions can be asked depends on the child. A lot of children do get angry with this questioning, as Wendy has pointed out occurs with Liitle I, and I don’t know the psychology behind it. I myself recall being extremely angry that I had to often answer the ‘why’ question, as it makes you sometimes think deeply about issues you were hoping to brush off. And in later years I remember yelling at my mother for having ‘brought me up to think and ask questions’, as it seemed like a burden. She just sat there and smiled at me, as I am doing 20 years after that tantrum, now that I too realise the importance it has made to me and my life since. For in adult years, this transpires to whether the questions you ask are open, as opposed to closed.  ‘Why did you decide to go to South America for 6 months? is a question that can open up a whole conversation, as opposed to ‘Did you have a nice time in South America?’ Both have their place in the world, but one helps you get to know a person, and the other, I’m afraid, helps the other person get to know that you’re not really interested in the answer.

    • http://twitter.com/wendymcauliffe wendymcauliffe

      Thanks so much for all of your insight. I love the idea of drawing pictures to help a child understand something they are curious about. And I agree with you wholeheartedly in the importance of asking children what they think about things from an early age, so that hopefully they will have greater empathy for others when they are older.

  • Lizzy

    This is a brilliant and helpful article! Thanks Wendy.  I feel a bit more preapared for when E decides to start on these questions, although the other day she did ask ‘Where is God?’ great, start me off on the easy to answer questions!! and her cousin (aged 5) and her were having a conversation about a dead squirrel this afternoon, so that might bring up some good discussions!

    • http://twitter.com/wendymcauliffe wendymcauliffe

      Thanks Lizzy. I have to admit, I’m really not sure how I’m going to respond to questions about negative topics, such as death. I sometimes find it difficult to judge how much truth a 2 year old can handle. Luckily I haven’t been dealt any questions like that yet!

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