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Understanding why toddlers say 'why'

There are more than a million pieces of scholarship published in peer reviewed journals every year, and yet -- despite all of that frothy research-- some of the biggest mysteries in our world remain unexplained. Among the questions we have not had a good answer for: Why do toddlers ask "Why?" all of the time.

It's a brutal phase, and I've yet to meet a parent who hasn't had to endure months and months of getting that one-word reply. I've heard various strategies for getting around it, including nonsense answers that seek to break the cycle and rules that bar one-word questions. But getting around the "why" phase doesn't answer the question: why? Why is "why" so fundamental to toddlers?

But in research published this month, we're beginning to get a sense of some answers. A research team from University of Hawaii and the University of Michigan found that kids are asking "why" as a means to get information about the world. The research found (PDF) that when children received explanatory information, they were more likely to end the questioning. At first blush, this seems utterly self-evident, but I think back on the "why"-based conversations that I've had, and it felt like most of them weren't about information-seeking. Mostly -- to my mind -- she was just trying to talk, and that was the easiest way to make conversation:

"Why are you turning the car," she'd say.

"Because this is the way to school," I'd answer.


"Because the school is down this road."


"Because that's where it is."


"Hey! Let's put on some sing-along music!"

Of course, this academic research only gets us so far. The authors note that additional studies needs to be done to stop the "why" cycle, most importantly figuring out what makes for a satisfying answer for the toddler. I'll stay tuned for that. In the meantime, how have you broken the string of "why's without squelching your child's exploration of the world?

By Brian Reid |  November 18, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Preschoolers
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I don't drive, so this has not been an issue for me.

Posted by: jezebel3 | November 18, 2009 7:38 AM | Report abuse

"A research team from University of Hawaii and the University of Michigan found that kids are asking "why" as a means to get information about the world."

You don't say.

We're right in the thick of the "why" deluge now (though it seems as if we've been there for almost two years). I can assure you, limiting one-word questions does absolutely nothing to stem the interrogation -- the questions just get more specific. We try to answer as honestly and informatively as we can, but sometimes that's impossible.

I actually wouldn't mind the "whys" so much if DD just accepted my answer to her question. What gets me is the repetition, especially where emotions are involved: "Mommy, why did x-and-so-kid not want to share?" "Because sometimes it's hard to share." "Oh. [beat] Mommy, why did x-and-so-kid not want to share?" I can usually bear three repetitions before I refuse to answer the question again.

Posted by: newsahm | November 18, 2009 7:51 AM | Report abuse

What gets me is the repetition, especially where emotions are involved: "Mommy, why did x-and-so-kid not want to share?" "Because sometimes it's hard to share." "Oh. [beat] Mommy, why did x-and-so-kid not want to share?" I can usually bear three repetitions before I refuse to answer the question again.

Posted by: newsahm | November 18, 2009 7:51 AM | Report abuse

LOL! My waay un-PC parents would say "Because the kid doesn't come from a "nice" family" or "Because the kid wasn't bought up in a "good" "Christian" family" !!!!!!!

Posted by: jezebel3 | November 18, 2009 8:03 AM | Report abuse

I think my toddler asks "why" a lot for a couple of reasons. Asking why gets the parent to pay attention and talk to him instead of whatever else they are doing. It helps him learn about the back and forth flow of conversation. He's little so the repetition helps him get information that he didn't get the first time. Lastly, sometimes he really does want to know where we are going. Once I started to think about "why" this way, I realized there was no right answer that was going to make him stop. He doesn't want me to stop responding to him.

This is one of those areas where I don't expect research to yield anything of much use.

Posted by: KS100H | November 18, 2009 9:26 AM | Report abuse

I'll answer the string of whys about 5 times before I tickle her or get super silly to end it. Eventually, we'll hit an "I don't know" anyway, and she seems to be fine with me explaining that I don't know everything.

I love having conversations with her. I could talk to her for hours, though her attention span is obviously much shorter than that. But the whys aren't really a conversation. They're annoying!

Posted by: atb2 | November 18, 2009 9:36 AM | Report abuse

We are stuck in the why stage at our house also. My 2 year old son will ask over and over. So much that I have found myself trying to explain the laws of physics to him when he kept asking why I slowed the car down to turn the corner. I have gotten frustrated and tried turning the why questions back on him. Asking why he doesn't want to do something and then continuing to ask why after each response. The first time I did this he looked at me frustrated and said "No say why Mommy, no say why." I wish I could say that to him sometimes.

Posted by: firemom35 | November 18, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

"My waay un-PC parents would say "Because the kid doesn't come from a "nice" family" or "Because the kid wasn't bought up in a "good" "Christian" family""

Wow Jezebel, with parents as messed up as you had, it's a wunder how you turned out so normal.

And you don't drive? Well, neither do I. We have sooooo much in common, it's frightening. Ya think?

On topic - The endless "Why" questioning is a attention and control technique. simple enough for a toddler to engage their parents, and funny enough, how so many parents fall for the trap, over and over again.

To combat this annoying behavior, I use silliness. Examples for each question that starts out:

Q: Why?
A: Chicken thigh.

Q: What?
A: Chicken butt.

Q: Who?
A: Chicken poo.

Q: Where?
A: Chicken hair.

[Note the repetitive use of chicken in the above...]

Q: When?
A: Half past.

And my personal favorite:
Me: I can make you say a Indian word. Wanna know how?
Kid: How?
Me: Ha ha a ha ha. I made you say "how", and that's an Indian word! Hahaha!

It drives kids nuts because they don't like being controled in what they think or say. Adults aren't any different in this respect.

Why research is being done on this stuff boggles my mind.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | November 18, 2009 10:02 AM | Report abuse

If I get too many whys, I start asking, "Why do YOU think?" Sometimes I get an answer to my question. Sometimes I get "I don't know." Sometimes I get "Why do YOU think?" right back, which usually ends in silliness.

I agree that a lot of times kids ask "why" just to keep the conversation going. At 2, 3 and 4, their conversational toolbox is not very refined.

Posted by: magmom | November 18, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Middle DD was the 'why?' girl when she was younger. Our Irish au pair used to short-circuit this by having both sides of the conversation. In rapid order:
"Why do I need to put on a coat?"
"Because we're going to the store and it's chilly."
"Because we need milk and eggs."
"Because we ran out."
"Because you ate eggs and drank milk at breakfast."
"Because that's what you said you wanted."
"I don't know why that's what you said you wanted."
"Why do I have to put on my coat?"
"Because it's chilly outside."
"Because it's November and we're in Maryland."
"Because that's where your parents chose to live, and you have to live with them, and I came to live with you."
"Because I wanted to live in America for a year and you seemed like you'd be a fun person to live with."

Now, picture one person, with a strong Galway brogue, ripping through that in about 5 or 6 seconds. Usually got middle DD cooperative in a hurry. :-)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | November 18, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Well, there are a bunch of different "why"s, so you have to recognize which one you're responding to. A real "why" gets a real response. My kid wants to know why the sky is blue, I'm going to tell her. The world is a really cool, interesting place, with so much to see and do and learn everywhere you look; I want to turn her on to that.

And then there's the "talk to me/boredom" why (the toddler equivalent of "are we there yet?"). That one's really easy to distract; just turn the conversation around to something they're interested in.

The one that got under my skin was the why-are-you-asking-me-the-same-thing-for-the-seventeenth-time version. You already know the answer, I know you know it, so why do you need to ask again? Then I realized that I had answered my own question: they are asking BECAUSE they already know the answer. At 2 or 3 or 4, being able to predict what mommy or daddy is going to say gives them a sense of control, of understanding, of order in the chaos. So now I recite the stock answer -- or start it off and have them tell me the rest.

Note: this never actually goes away; it just changes clothes and comes back looking a little different. With my older one, it's now "tell me the story about X again." Slightly more sophisticated version of the same thing.

Posted by: laura33 | November 18, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Most times the best answer after a long series of why's is "Because I love you"

Posted by: StrollerMomma | November 18, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Haha as I am reading this, I am talking to my SIL and her 2 year old is asking WHY do i have to be quiet? in the background. LOL

Posted by: sunflower571 | November 18, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Most of my oldest's "whys" are legitimate questions. The problem is I frequently don't know how to explain the answer to a 4-year old in a way that she'll understand. (ie, "Why do I breathe?" Because your body needs oxygen to work. "Why?" um....) Usually this ends with my telling her either a) let's look it up later or b)let's ask Daddy.

Posted by: floof | November 18, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

"My kid wants to know why the sky is blue, I'm going to tell her."

"Why is the sky blue?" was one of the four questions on my Freshman Physics final exam. So she's way ahead of the game. :-)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | November 18, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Now that my son it older, if he goes on a why blitz I can get him to refine what he needs to know. If he's asking a lot of the same whys, I'll ask him if there's something about my answer he doesn't understand, or what specifically he still wants to know.. A lot of times he keeps asking because he's still trying to fill in holes. As a former newspaper reporter, I see the why stage as karma for asking waaaaaaay too many questions myself!

Posted by: sjneal | November 18, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

When my daughter was 2 or 3, we were walking across a field (just the two of us--no one else in sight) and she was asking me many questions that she already knew the answer to, some of them repeated questions. So I finally asked her, "Why do you ask me questions when you already know the answer?" She told me, "I'm not talking to you."

Posted by: janedoe5 | November 18, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Why? Why? Why? I don't know. Go ask your mother, she knows everything.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | November 18, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

"Why research is being done on this stuff boggles my mind."

Same here! The conclusion that asking "why" is an attempt to get information about the world just seems so stunningly obvious. And why we would want to stop that attempt is even more curious to me. Sure, it gets annoying after the 5th drill-down to something you don't know how to explain, but it's also kind of cool to have to try to explain things you've forgotten to even question as an adult.

Posted by: LizaBean | November 18, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

When my 3 yr old asks why, it's no use going down that road of answering with information. What she REALLY wants is for ME to ask HER "why?" right back. Then she tells me what she thinks, and that satisfies her!

Posted by: liziko | November 18, 2009 4:48 PM | Report abuse

It's long moments spent with kids worshipping at the "Shrine to Why" that have convinced me once and for all that we don't raise kids...we raise CIA!

My older daughter wasn't too much into the long, dragged-out rounds of "Why?" but she did have her moments. Nowadays she uses "why" questions to try to wear me down when I've told her she can't do something (like go to a friend's house because she hasn't completed her chores). The endless rounds of asking why she can't go over or do whatever she wants got irritating until I would get exasperated and give her a 7-minute stint in her room (one minute for each year old she is). My husband calls it "doing time in solitary," but it's cut down on the endless repetition!

My younger daughter is 2 1/2, so once she learns to talk in coherent English, I got a feeling we're gonna be in for round two for quite a few years, since she's already an expert at aping her older sister! If imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery, then her older sister must be really impressed!

Posted by: dragondancer1814 | November 18, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

I like the Irish au pair's technique. When the boys were little DH did something similar - for example "why is the sky blue?" would get a 15-minute discourse - with digressions about why rainbows are seven colors, how prisms refract light, how the tilt of the earth's access causes the changing seasons ...

Now the boys don't ask open-ended questions very often. When they ask a question, it's very specific so it can be answered in a few words or only one or two sentences.

Posted by: SueMc | November 18, 2009 7:16 PM | Report abuse

Ha, haven't had kids yet but when my sisters were little and started the why game, it would always end up as:

Posted by: snappymouth | November 19, 2009 10:10 AM | Report abuse

"My kid wants to know why the sky is blue, I'm going to tell her."

Can you tell me also please, Laura? Seriously. :)

Posted by: emily8 | November 19, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

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