This Is The Real Reason Kids Ask 'Why' So Much -- And What To Do About It

by Emily Connor
Mom helping her kids with the homework while listening to all the "Why" questions

On a one-hour long car journey, I have to be prepared to answer the 50 whys my 3.5-year-old-son asks me. This ranges from “Why is the moon hiding behind the clouds,” and “Why isn’t there an airplane in the sky?” to “Why is that car going faster than ours?” and everything else in between. While we usually start off the journey with elaborate answers to the questions, they end up getting crisper and shorter until I reach a point where I just don’t have the patience or the strength to answer any more whys.

As the mother of a little boy who never stops asking why, it can be quite frustrating to keep up with all the questions and not lose patience. But research shows that the more questions a child asks, the more your child is learning. According to Harvard-based child psychologist Paul Harris, a child asks around 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five. By the time the child is four, most of the questions asked are explanatory-seeking in nature.

Why do children ask why?

According to a study conducted at the University of Michigan, the reason why preschoolers ask so many whys is not that they wish to annoy their parents, but because they really want an explanation. In the study, children who were given the correct explanations were often satisfied and agreed or asked follow-up questions, while those who didn’t receive a satisfactory answer would often repeat the same question again and again until they received one.

That is something I have noticed with my son, for sure. The times I brush off his answer with an “I don’t know” or “Because I say so,” I often get bombarded with variations of the original question, until I have no other option but to either research and find out more about the question (“Mom, why is the moon following us?”) or stand my ground (“Why should I wear my pants?”) and hope to survive a tantrum.

So, why do children ask so many questions? Well, it could be one of the following reasons:

The need to know: As your child grows up, they realize that there are so many wonderful things around them, and thus these questions are a way of finding out more about the world they inhabit. For a little child who is still coming to terms with the world, everything is overwhelming — hence the need to know. It may be difficult to answer all the questions, and trust me, some are quite hard (“Why is that insect red and black in color?”), but remember that you are helping your child grow and their brain develop by answering all the questions they have.

Preschool and elementary school years are the best times to enhance your child’s knowledge and inculcate the curiosity to learn. According to a poll by American research firm Gallup, children ask fewer questions as they grow up and this often corresponds with less engagement in school.

Attention seeking: According to INSEAD professor and questioning expert, Hal Gregerson, a child asks why over and over again either because we do not understand their question or are not listening to them. In such cases, it is often better for your child, and your sanity, to take a short break from what you are doing and talk to them. Once you have given them your attention, you can explain that you now need to get back to your work.

Defiance: Sometimes a child’s why is just a way of being defiant (“Why should I brush my teeth?”). This can often be frustrating, especially when it comes at the end of a long, tiresome day. However, you getting angry is just going to make the situation worse. Rather than saying, “Because I tell you to,” explain what happens if your child doesn’t brush their teeth. Patience and persistence help, most of the time. When it doesn’t, just grit your teeth, ignore, and keep at it.

How to tackle a million whys

The following tips may help you while dealing with your child’s persistent questions.

Answer them: Sometimes all your child needs is a straight answer to the questions they ask. Instead of ignoring the question, “Why should I wear my pants?” answer it with “Because you will feel cold otherwise.” If your child is satisfied with the answer, chances are they will stop repeating it and may allow you to complete the task at hand. If a question needs a longer explanation, try to elaborate on your answer in a way that your child will understand.

Accept that you don’t know: It never hurts to tell your child honestly that you don’t know something. You can then read up on and explain to them in a language they understand. You don’t need to answer them immediately; just let them know that you will find out and get back to them. As a bonus, this helps you brush up your general knowledge while feeding your child’s curiosity and natural desire to learn things.

Research together: Children have the ability to ask certain questions that genuinely leave you stumped. That is because they observe and analyze so much more than we adults do. If your child sees that you are looking up something that you do not know, it will encourage them to do the same. You can take out an encyclopedia and figure out the answer together. This will also encourage your child’s reading habit, or get them accustomed to books if they haven’t started to read yet.

Regardless of whether he asks me a question or not, I try to make it a point to sit with my son for half an hour every day with an encyclopedia and show him the various pictures on it. Though we invariably end up going to the same pages most of the times (bulldozers, planets, and airplanes), the process of sitting and reading together further fuels the inquisitiveness in him.

Turn the question back: You can also turn the question around and ask your child why. For instance, if your child asks you why dogs like to wag their tails, you can ask your child to think about it and answer, instead. This will encourage your child to figure out what’s on their mind. It is quite a treat listening to the imaginative answers they often come up with. However, remember that the kind of tone you use here will make a lot of difference. If you seem annoyed while asking, it may have the opposite effect of what you were trying to achieve.

Patience is key: Finally, to make any sort of progress with your child, you need patience – oodles and oodles of it.