At first, it’s kind of endearing. No matter what you say (“the sky looks so blue today” or “that ankylosaurus has so many spikes on its back”), your child responds with a single word: “Why?” But after the 17th time, you’re pulling your hair out. (“Because I said so,” you rattle off.) So, what is the right way to respond to this question? And why (ha, had to) does the toddler set relish asking it on repeat? We reached out to Allison Tsomos, a teacher-turned-vice president of operations at Celebree School, to get the deets.
First, why is “why” such a common question for kids and toddlers? Tsomos explains that asking why is actually a direct response to the rapid growth in the left hemisphere of their brains between 18 and 30 months. (This is the part responsible for logical thinking skills such as math, reading and writing.) It’s also a developmentally appropriate question tied to their interest in making better sense of their world. (“Scientifically speaking, they are developing synaptic connections to the brain, which will reach 1,000 trillion by age three,” Tsomos explains.) In other words, it’s how they expand their knowledge and build their problem-solving intelligence.
What’s the best way to respond? If your child is three and up, flip the script and turn it back over to them by saying: “I don’t know, what do you think?” This question requires a child to utilize previously stored data and create a logical response,” Tsomos says. “At age three, they have typically stored enough data and had repeated experiences to take a stab at responding.”
But what if they couldn’t possibly answer that? Before you counter your child’s question with a question, ask yourself, “Based on their life experiences so far, do they have enough data collected to take a guess?” If the answer is yes, ask, “what do you think?” But if the answer is no, supply them with as many facts as you can muster. Here’s an example from Tsomos: If you tell your kid to put on their winter coat, they likely have enough experience to know why (“so I am warm”), But if you say, “looks like it might rain today,” and they say, “why?”, there’s a good chance they don’t have enough facts gathered about weather and humidity to understand that rain is pending. “In this scenario, you must give them facts and knowledge that they can store for future use,” Tsomos explains.