Why preschoolers ask “why”
For Heather Drewett, it’s her son’s back-seat driving questions that make her crazy. “If an adult asked you, ‘Why are you turning here?’ and ‘Why is your turn signal on?’ and ‘Aren’t you supposed to stop if the light is yellow?’ you’d feel pretty annoyed at that person,” she says. “I know that Caden is only asking out of curiosity, but it feels like he’s critiquing my driving, and it can really get on my nerves.”
For Nicola Aquino, it’s the series of non-stop questions that wear her out. “Anthony just won’t take a simple answer at face value. He asks, ‘Why are my eyes brown?’ and I say, ‘Because my eyes are brown’ and he’ll say, ‘But Daddy’s eyes are blue, so why are my eyes brown?’” Aquino explains that sometimes kids look more like their mothers, but Anthony’s not satisfied. “He just keeps asking why.”
Almost all preschoolers do it. They usually start by asking what things are called; once they have the names down pat, they want to know how things are made, why things happen and what’s going to happen next.
What works for parents
All these questions have a purpose: to fulfill the preschooler’s burning need to understand what the world is all about. You don’t want to discourage learning, but endless streams of questions can make a day with a preschooler seem like a long time. Here’s what worked for these parents:
• Aquino answers Anthony’s persistent questions with detailed scientific explanations. The first time she tried it, she was just hoping to baffle him with scientific words, but it worked so well she’s used it several times since: “When he wasn’t happy with the basic answer I’d given him, I went into a long diatribe. My goal at the time was just to stop him asking questions, but I realized that he was actually happy with that answer. He didn’t understand most of it, but I think he just liked knowing that I’d given him a real answer.”
• Drewett, on the other hand, takes a “question time out.” When she’s had enough of the commentary on her driving, she announces that “she has to concentrate on driving now, and there will be no discussion.” Then she turns up the volume on the radio, just enough to remind Caden that question period is temporarily on hold.
Another option: Ask them what they think. When my son Jeremy was three, he asked me why it was light outside in the daytime and dark at night. I turned the question back to him, and he said he didn’t know. After thinking it over a few minutes, though, he announced: “I figured it out. Matthew [his oldest brother] makes the sun come up in the morning. Lisa [his older sister] makes it go down again at night.” “OK,” I said, “but what about [his other brother] Danny?” Jeremy had an answer for that too: “He opens and closes the curtains.”
That was a better — or at least more interesting — answer than I could ever have come up with.