I want my child to be curious, to be a relentless learner, a constant seeker of new information. As a teacher, it's one of the things I want most.
He, as well as other toddlers, have a tendency to begin the onslaught of "whys" when I'm trying to focus on driving through a tricky traffic situation, or trying to cook dinner while his little sister is crying and demanding to be held. I don't think this is a coincidence. Asking "why" is something children do when they're curious, but it's also a simple way they can engage, start a conversation.
So how do we protect and encourage our children's beautiful curiosity without losing our patience from the constant barrage of questions?
Here are six phrases to say when your child constantly asks, "why?":
1. "Let's revisit his questions when we're eating dinner together."
My toddler now knows that when I'm making dinner, it's not a good time for "why questions." Does this mean he never does it? No, of course not. But I have explained that this is a busy time when a lot is going on and that it stresses me out to try to answer a lot of questions while cooking.
When he begins to ask "why," I remind him of the boundary and offer him other ways to engage like helping me chop vegetables.
Think about the boundaries you want to set and explain them to your child at a neutral time. You will likely have to repeat the new rule many, many times, but eventually your child will internalize it.
One of the most effective responses to "why?" is in fact, asking "why?"
Here's an example:
Child: "Why do birds eat berries?"
Parent: "Why do birds eat berries?"
Child: "Probably because they're tasty."
Sometimes a child asks "why?" simply because they want to talk about something, to discuss their own theory. They don't always need a direct answer. Responding with a question gives your child a chance to try out an explanation and helps develop their critical thinking skills.
Here's an example: If they're wildly off base, you can always offer your own explanation too.
Child: "Why are giraffes so tall?"
Parent: "Why are giraffes so tall?"
Child: "Probably so they can win at basketball."
3. "That's an interesting question, I'm going to write that down so we can think about it some more later."
If you can tell your child is really curious about something but you don't have the answer or don't have time to explain at the moment, write their question down. Even young children who can't read or write yet recognize that when you write something down, it's important to you. Just be sure to answer the questions on a rainy day.
4. "I don't know."
Don't feel like you need to have all of the answers. "I don't know" is a perfectly acceptable response.
Show your child how to look in a book or ask an expert or search the internet for an answer. Show them how to find a book on a certain topic at the library. You don't have to do this every time, but researching together can be a wonderful way to promote a love of learning.
5. "Wow! That's a pretty cool bike. Remember we had so much fun riding it last weekend?"
Young children are still learning conversation skills, and being inquisitive helps them learn. When your child asks, "Why is my bike red?" they might really just be inviting you to have a conversation about their bike.
If your child is asking a question that doesn't seem like a real question, try interpreting it as a conversation starter. Respond by talking about their bike in general, maybe recalling how they had such a fun ride last weekend or how they went with you to pick it out on their birthday.
6. "I recognize that you want my attention right now. I'm working on the computer and I know that's hard for you."
This brief acknowledgement can help reset a toddler whose mood is rapidly deteriorating. Even if it doesn't satisfy them, they at least know that you recognize how they are feeling.
Try saying something like, "I see you want my attention right now. I'm working on the computer and I know that's hard for you. Let's take a hug break, and we can talk more about your questions as soon as I'm done."
Yes, I admit that I sometimes find the constant string of "whys" really difficult. But at the same time, I hope they never disappear. I want my child to retain that sense of wonder and curiosity about the world. I want him to ask "why?" instead of blindly accepting the way things are. I know I have to be careful not to stifle this when I'm feeling frazzled.
If you're feeling this way, too, pause and consider the reason your toddler is asking "why?" at the moment. Knowing whether it's curiosity, attention seeking or simply an attempt to push your buttons will help you decide how to respond.