If there's one word that every chatty preschooler knows (other than “no”) it’s “why.” From “why can’t we get a puppy” and “why is the sky blue,” to “why does Grandpa have hair coming out of his nose” and “why can’t I have a baby brother,” parents have been asked it all.
Judy Arnall, a parenting expert and author of Discipline Without Distress and Plugged-In Parenting, says the “why stage” of development isn’t about misbehaving—or annoying mom and dad—it’s what happens when children’s brains exercise their imagination and creative thinking. “Asking ‘why?’ shows a significant leap in brain development,” she says. “Children only understand what is familiar in their life and what they can see, touch and hear. They ask questions to connect the dots.”
Preschool teacher and registered early childhood educator Alanna Pustil agrees. “It’s natural—a child’s curiosity spikes due to their growing self-awareness and world awareness. They begin to notice things happening in their environment that they never registered before,” she says.
That might explain why mom Lyndsey Smith once had an eight-minute conversation with her four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Hannah, about the death of Smith’s grandfather. “She wanted to know why he died, why we bury people, where he is now and why, why we can’t dig him up and why he’ll turn to soil one day.” This continued until they got to the grocery store and Hannah’s attention was diverted. “Her questions are endless. There are times when I simply answer, ‘I don’t know,’ and it makes her furious. She’ll even yell, ‘Yes you do,’ as if I’m trying to keep a secret from her.”
Arnall says parents should embrace their kids’ queries, no matter how aggravating, and make time to answer them. “Asking questions is the curiosity behind lifelong learning, and parents want to be careful not to stifle that inquisitiveness by rebuffing the child, or answering in sarcasm.” Remember that the inquiries will only get more difficult as they grow up. (Just wait until you hear, “Why can’t I pierce my tongue?”)
If you’re wondering if there are any questions that you should avoid responding to, Arnall says no topic is inappropriate to explain to a curious preschooler. “If you want your child to come to you when they are tweens and teens, lay the groundwork now. You want to give your child the message that no question is off the table.” If you don’t know the answer to a question, work on finding it and do your best to respond.
Smith admits that Hannah’s constant questioning has lead to some awkward explanations. “But I don’t shy away from complicated or difficult questions, nor do I necessarily dumb down my answers,” she says. “Sometimes the complicated answer gives her brain enough to mull over that it finally buys silence."
A version of this article was published in our December 2012 issue under the headline: "Why Mommy, why?" (p. 72).