Toddlers and the Power of Why

From the weather to why we brush our teeth, it’s almost like they can’t help themselves. It’s been covered in TV episodes and in cartoons. You can picture it even now. An exasperated parent being followed by a super-inquisitive toddler, relentlessly asking “why”.

Research reveals that kids ask around 40,000 questions between 2-4 years of age. Similar studies also found that some 4-year-olds ask about 200-300 questions DAILY. As taxing as their inquiries can be for us as parents, it’s a good thing! Questions and curiosity are good indicators of social and cognitive development.

Language and Logic

From our previous Whole Brain Child post, we know that each hemisphere of the brain alternates in growth. During this Why phase, the left hemisphere (the side responsible to logic, language, and reasoning) experiences a huge growth spurt. Their curiosity is coinciding with words and linear thinking.

Between 2-3 years of age, toddlers are building an extensive vocabulary at lightning speed. As they start putting words and phrases together, they begin asking questions to help gain more knowledge. These questions may start simple (“What’s this? What’s that?”) and then progress to a myriad of “Why” questions that seek explanations rather than simple facts around the age of 4.

As your child goes through this stage, their brain is continuously making neural connections with each thought and new piece of information that becomes available, asking more questions if data is missing or not understood. In fact, a University of Michigan study found that when preschoolers were given actual explanations, they either agreed and were satisfied with the response or asked a follow-up question. These inquiries help them categorize, label, and store new knowledge away to be pulled out for another time.  

There are other advantages of your child asking so many questions, like:

  • Taking an active role in their own learning, stimulating their brain and cognition
  • Reducing anxiety by understanding unknown or unfamiliar things in their environment
  • Increasing their interest to learn new ideas as well as the objects and people around them
  • Improving communication skills and building their vocabulary
  • Deepening interpersonal relationships with people they trust

We know that the questions come with the toddler/preschool territory, but what’s with asking the same question repeatedly?

One explanation may be because they feel that we did not understand their question or what they are really asking. It may also be difficult for them to rephrase their question to gain the information they’re looking for; hence, the repetition. Research has found that preschoolers are more likely to ask the same question if they are dissatisfied with the response they receive.

This Won’t Take Long

This outburst of curiosity and questioning isn’t forever, but there really isn’t a timestamp on it either. Like all developmental milestones, this stage requires time and patience from our end. So, what can we do to help them along?

  • Add Some Detail. Build your child’s vocabulary by adding more descriptions to what they are asking. For instance, they may know what a shoe is but will ask again to find out a different characteristic about it. So rather than labeling the object as a shoe, you may tell them the color (red), label parts of the shoe (laces, sole, tongue, etc), where you put them (on your feet), and why you wear them (to protect your feet).

  • Look it Up Together. It’s flattering that our kids believe we have all the answers, but we don’t and that’s okay. Find out the answers together by looking it up on the internet, reading a book about it, or even asking your friendly voice assistant (Alexa, Siri, Cortana, or Google) to help find the answer.

  • Find Out Together. Some questions may be more fun answered with an experiment. Yes, you may know the answer, but it may be more fun to find out using the scientific approach. For example, my son recently asked me about why we use dryer sheets. I told him it was to reduce static electricity. Yeah, he still didn’t get it. So we investigated static electricity by rubbing a balloon on his head as well as shuffling with socks on a rug. Not only do you find out the answer together, but they understand it more thoroughly. Plus, you create meaningful memories as well.

  • Question for a Question. Around the age of 3, you can start asking your child simple questions to help them expand their knowledge and critical thinking skills. So, if they ask what is that flying in the sky (a bird), you can ask them if that bird is flying fast or slow, straight or in a circle, or if it’s big or small. As they get older, you can ask harder questions like, “Where do you think they’re going?” or “What kind of bird do you think that is?”

One thing to avoid is to end their inquisitiveness with responses that are short or dismissive, like “I don’t know” or “Because that’s how it is.” These replies can send a message that their interest and curiosity isn’t important and may limit a child’s want to learn from you.

On Thursday, we’re turning the spotlight on the parents during the Why stage. How do we handle the constant repetition and what are some hacks we can use to stay on top of the flood of questions?

Have a tip on winning the Why stage?
Leave it in the comments.


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One Year Ago: Child(ish) Q&A: When will my kid be fun?
Two Years Ago: The Less Stress Mess

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