By Dawn YanekUpdated Jul 15, 2022
A toddler’s curiosity is an amazing, wonderful thing….that juuuuust might drive you clinically insane as you spiral down into a Q&A rabbit hole.
You know the drill: Your toddler asks you a question, and you’re delighted. How adorable and smart! You give (what you think is) a good, informative answer—which is followed by, "Why?"
You smile. Oh, this kid sure is something! You have to admit, you’re fascinated by your toddler’s fascination. So you answer—and get another why.
Um, OK. You take a breath and answer the third follow-up question. Another why.
Now it’s getting exasperating. But you answer again, only to get another why. And another and another and another.
This would be OK if you didn’t need to get to work or you didn’t want dirty looks at church or, for Pete’s sake, you just wanted two seconds of peace and quiet!
Does that sound dramatic? Not if you have a toddler with the tenacity of the Terminator.
But you’ll be happy to know that the “why” phase doesn't last forever, and our kids aren’t purposely pushing our buttons. Instead, they’re really taking their next big developmental leap.
Adults take the world for granted. Kids don’t. To them, everything is interesting because everything is new. Sure, they may have seen and heard these things before, but not in this way. So they’ll ask why dirt is so dirty, why ice cream isn’t for breakfast, why Main St. is called Main St. and why the dog didn’t grow in Mommy’s belly. As one question leads to another, you’re literally seeing your children’s minds at work as they learn about the world around them. As a parent, you want to encourage that curiosity and toddler-style critical thinking.
A barrage of questions may feel like an interrogation, but it’s actually a conversation—just with a toddler’s limited vocabulary and communication skills. “Typically prior to this phase, it was the ‘no’ phase,” explains Elliott Cortez, a child psychologist and the founder of Elliott’s Classes in New York City. “Now they are starting to understand that by saying ‘why,’ they’re eliciting a response from you.” The “why” may not even be the real question but a way to tell you that something is interesting and they want to know more about it.
These quirky conversations also build your relationship with your child. If you seem frustrated or annoyed, your little one might shut down. But if your tone is warm and welcoming, your child will learn to come to you with any thoughts and worries because you’ve made it clear that you’re always there to listen. That’s the type of relationship we desperately want with our kids. We just didn’t realize we had to play 20 Questions to get it.
As important and beneficial as the “why” phase is, it can be challenging when you’re in the middle of it. The following strategies can help you keep your cool and do some seriously good parenting when you’re in the hot seat—and shut things down gently when enough’s enough.
"Why are there stars in the sky?" asks your curious kid. Try replying with, "Hmm, why do you think there are stars in the sky?" You never know what your toddler will come up with, and often, it’s pretty darn cute and creative. But more importantly, you’re getting your child to think for herself and be brave enough to offer an answer. That helps to develop confidence, self-esteem and problem-solving skills. This tactic also ensures that you don’t have to hold an advanced astrophysics degree to provide a decent answer.
If your significant other is there, throw them under the bus—er, involve them in the learning process. This option may be particularly attractive when there’s a “no” embedded in your answer. “My favorite response to a ‘why’ is: “Why don’t you go ask your dad?’” says Meg Resnikoff, co-founder of the digital parenting network What’s Up Moms. The only problem? “It worked like a charm until my husband caught on and ‘Why don't you go ask your mom?’ became just as common in our house.” You may want to use this one sparingly.
Instead of simply answering a question about, say, why strawberries are red, you can talk about how strawberries are fruits that taste sweet and have a bumpy texture, how they grow on a vine versus how apples grow on trees, and hey, do you remember the time we went strawberry picking last summer? Think of the question as a jumping-off point that can blossom into a whole delightful conversation.
It’s flattering to be thought of as the All-Knowing Parent, but it’s actually a good idea to let your toddler know that you don’t, in fact, know everything. “I like to say, ‘I don’t know—that’s a great question! Let’s write that one down and research it later,’” says Cortez. “That introduces them to the process of finding information on their own, which promotes independence and empowers them to question things.” Also, when your kid takes the lead in learning about medieval armor or the world’s biggest walrus, they just might be discovering their next obsession.
Diversion and distraction may be your only recourse if you really want to stop a particular line of questioning. Yes, your stubborn toddler may want an answer, but what they really want is your attention. As long as you’re still giving it to them, they will likely bounce happily to another topic or activity.
All it takes is a little change in perspective to turn these questions into a little bit of fun. Start counting the number of questions your child asks and keep track of how many you can actually answer. It’s kind of like playing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, only without the lifelines to phone a friend…or the actual millions.
While it shouldn’t be your go-to, sometimes it just has to be said. When is that time? When safety is an issue and a certain someone isn’t listening, or when you’re truly at your wit’s end. You could also try, "Because it matters to Mommy" if you're asked, say, "But why do I have to put on socks?" That's what Resnikoff does. "I leave out the last part of the thought, though: ‘Because it matters to Mommy’s mental health that you just do it.’” Truer words have never been spoken—or unspoken, as the case may be.