Before I was a parent, I thought the “Why” stage was funny—I imagined a 4-year-old thoughtfully asking simple yet profound questions (“Why aren’t there always rainbows after it rains?” “Why do I have hair on my arms?” “Why do your shoes have heels and mine don’t?”) that would give her parents pause, make them wonder in their heads the same question, or even have them surreptitiously looking it up frantically on Google.
While occasionally certain Why questions will elicit such a response from me, I quickly learned (after the initial “Oh cute–we’re in this stage now!” wore off) that the vast majority of them just drive me BONKERS.
Parenthood, man–never ceasing to call me out on all my preconceived notions of how it certainly would (and would not) be.
A little sampling of some of the Why questions I’ve fielded in the past hour (the full why question supplied by me, as my daughter usually JUST says ‘Why?’ in response to whatever I’ve just said…every time):
- Why can’t I put my comb on the potty? (Gross.)
- Why is the baby not sleeping? (Good question.)
- Why can’t I wear my flip flops today? (I wish you could.)
- Why are we just putting my hair in one little ponytail? (Because I’m lazy.)
- Why do I need to be quiet? (Because you’re driving me crazy. I mean, because the baby’s trying to sleep.)
- Why is Mathias trying to sleep? (Because he’s grumpy.)
- Why are we going on a play date? (Don’t you WANT to go on a play date?)
- Why is your bum so big? (Rude.)
- Why is it 9:27? (Because it just is.)
- Why do I need to get ready for the day? (Because I said so.)
- Why does Mathias still not want to sleep? (I’d like to know that myself.)
- Why is he crying? (I DON’T KNOW! MAYBE BECAUSE YOU KEEP TALKING TO ME AT THE TOP OF YOUR VOICE RIGHT OUTSIDE HIS DOOR!)
Bonkers, I tell ya.
So I dove into some research on this (because that’s apparently what I do in my free time, now–read peer-reviewed studies and case study abstracts for the pure pleasure of it, just to try to find
anything I possibly could to save my sanity some really positive parenting strategies I could use with this), and I actually found some points worth passing along.
(The link and citation info to the study I’m summarizing here is included at the end of the post, in case you’re curious to read it for yourself.)
What the Research Says on the Why Stage
First off, the study showed that among two- to four-year-olds, these kinds of “information-seeking questions” are incredibly frequent—the study found that they occurred, on average, at a rate of 76 PER HOUR, which definitely helps explain why I feel like I can never have two seconds together to think my own thoughts lately. Additionally, the study found that the majority of questions that kids these ages ask are to get information, not to get attention, get a rise, or ask permission.
The study basically broke each information exchange between child and adult into three steps: 1) the actual question, 2) the response the child is given, and 3) the reaction of the child to that response.
While many people theorize that one possible reason that children this age ask so many questions is simply to keep a conversation going, the study actually showed that that theory didn’t really pan out, mostly due to the fact that children were MUCH more likely to continue to repeat the same question over and over following a response that wasn’t informative or not helpful, and if they were doing it to just keep the conversation going, they would have kept persisting no matter what the adult’s response.
Additionally, the likelihood that a child would not respond or ask another question was highest when an actual explanation was given, which supports the idea that the questions are truly the child’s earnest attempt to figure out the world around her.
But, lest you think that actually providing a “real” answer will stem the stream of Why’s, the study also found this: Children were much more likely to ask another follow-up question after they received a short explanation in response rather than a short non-explanation. (However, children were also significantly more likely to re-ask the exact same question after a non-response, so…catch 22 there.)
The study summarized that young children are almost never asking Why and How questions just to extend a conversation or to get attention, but that they are honestly seeking information. Therefore, when young children receive explanatory responses, they usually appear more satisfied (which can sometimes promote more questions) when they receive an actual answer rather than when they receive a non-response, which will usually just elicit the same question to be asked over and over. The study found that even in children as young as two, these kinds of response patterns were typical.
So what’s a parent to do to cope with such an onslaught of requests for information? While I can’t present to you my own peer-reviewed study, I can tell you the coping strategies that I myself use day in and day out.
1.Whenever possible, try to give an actual answer to your child’s question. (For me, it helps to remember that she’s not doing it to drive me crazy, but to honestly figure something out.)
I was trying to do this before I read the research, but I was glad that the research backed me up on these initial thoughts (although I must say, it actually really helped to see that the study showed that the children weren’t doing it to just get attention or just talk for the sake of talking, because sometimes I definitely wonder…).
And, if nothing else, the children were most likely to not respond with further questions when their initial question actually got answered, so there’s that.
2. Try to anticipate when a “Why?” question will arise and phrase your initial statement to counteract that.
I know if I just say, “You can’t wear your flip-flops today,” it will immediately provoke a “Why?”. So I follow the saying that the best defense is a good offense, and I lead out with, “You can’t wear your flip-flops today because it’s too cold outside.” True, this only works about a fourth of the time. But hey, I’ll take whatever reduction in the constant questioning that I can get!
3. If my child is asking a “Why” question that I’m pretty positive she knows the answer to (because she’s asked the exact same one a million times before), I redirect the question back to her.
So, when she asks, “Why shouldn’t I be loud when Mathias is sleeping?”, I simply respond with, “What do you think? Why shouldn’t you?” (At which point, she either gives me the correct response and moves on, or she just keeps repeating the same question over and over again, which makes me question whether she might not really understand the explanation I’ve already given before, and I try to rephrase.)
4. If the “Why?” is coupled with a whiny voice, I address the whine, not the question.
Usually, I’ll either say, “Oh, I can’t understand you when you talk in that tone of voice” or “I don’t like it when you whine, so I’ll wait to respond until you choose to ask in a nicer way.” At the very least, this gets me a much less annoying version of the question, which makes me much more likely to give a genuine response.
5. When all else fails, I just tell her to go ask her dad 🙂
Sometimes I just need a break so I won’t explode, and this is the easiest way to buy myself some sanity (at the cost of my husband’s, ha ha). Other possibilities: “I’ll tell you later,” or, “Let me think about it, and we can talk about it later.”
In reviewing the study, I found that they only tested kids between the ages of two and five, so at the very least, this has surely got to get significantly better by age six, right?!
So, if you’re looking for some strategies to cope with the frustration of dealing with constant questions, keep some of the things from this study and this post in mind, and I wish us both all the patience in the world going forward.
How do you survive the ‘Why?’ stage?
1. Frazier, B. N., Gelman, S. A., & Wellman, H. M. (2009). Pre-schoolers’ search for explanatory information within adult-child conversation. Child Development, 80(6), 1592-1611. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2784636/
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