Did you know that two year olds have twice as many synapses, the connections between brain cells, as adults? Synapses are where learning occurs. With twice as many synapses in their growing brains they are learning faster than at any other time in life. Therefore, children’s experiences in this phase have lasting effects on their development…and they have so many questions, starting with the big one…”WHY?”

There can be many reasons why young children ask why:

1. They are gathering information about the world

Two and three year olds like to hear you talk. They like to hear language repeated. Children at this age are growing their understanding of the world and their vocabularies at an incredible rate. Just like when we, as adults, learn a foreign language, we need to hear it a lot before we feel comfortable using it ourselves. Toddlers are connecting the dots between all of these words and the real life things that they are observing.

2. They are social beings that want to engage with you

Asking “why” over and over again is playful and social in nature. They want to play, initiate a back and forth, and witness the cause and effect. They are learning: “when I ask “why”, my grown up speaks and responds”. They are practicing the art of conversation. They likely want to say more but don’t yet have the expressive language to do so, so asking “why” allows for engagement on a given topic without requiring a lot of language on their part. 

3. They want to feel safe

Children between two and three years old are coming into the realization that there is this whole big world out there and that is kind of scary. Asking lots of questions helps them to feel more secure in the world.

Photo of why do toddlers ask why

How to respond when your child asks “Why?” over and over…and over again

1. Answer their question with special consideration for their point of interest.

Try to think about what they care most about within the context of their question and then come at your response from where you know they want to engage.

Here is an example conversation:

Child (looking at bag of cookies on the counter): Why are the cookies there?

Parent: Because I just took them out of the grocery bag and I am putting things away.

Child: Why?

Parent: I always put things on the counter as I put them away. 

Child: Why?

Parent: Hmmm…I wonder if you are thinking about when YOU might get to have a cookie? 

Child: (Nods)

Parent: How about after lunch?

2. Answer and redirect

Answer their question, give them information, and then help them move on by re-directing them.

Here is an example conversation:

Child: Why are there dinosaurs?

Parent: Well, dinosaurs used to roam the earth but they all died. Their lives are over.

Child: Why?

Parent: Well, we’re not exactly sure what happened, it was a really long time ago, all we have left to study are their bones.

Child: Why?

Parent: That’s what we’ve got.

Child: Why?

Parent: Sounds like you are really thinking about dinosaurs and where they went. Maybe we can find a dinosaur book at the museum later. Hey, guess what else we are doing later? We are going to the playground. Should we pack a bag of things for the playground? What shall we bring?

3. Pose their question or a similar one back to them.

Depending on their language abilities you can pose the question differently. For slightly older children with sufficient previous experience, you can try to pose a more open-ended question. 

Here is an example conversation for older children:

Child: Why do we only see Auntie Kate in the summer?

Parent: Auntie Kate lives on the west coast, all the way in California, so she only gets over here about once a year.

Child: Why?

Parent: She’s very busy with her job, she does a lot of traveling and she’s also taking care of your cousins.

Child: Why?

Parent: Hm, what do you think? Why do you think Auntie Kate doesn’t come more often? 

Photo of how to respond when a child asks why

For a younger child you would put more support around the question when posing it back, making it easier to answer:

Here is an example conversation for younger children:

Child: Where’s Auntie Kate? I miss her. Can she come here?

Parent: You miss your Auntie Kate. She lives far away in California. She has to take a plane to visit. 

Child: Why?

Parent: Why does she have to take a plane? Well, it’s a long, long way. So, she only comes once in a while.

Child: Why?

Parent: Why do you think she can only come once in a while? Should she take a plane every day to see us? Or once in a while?

Child: Everyday! 

Parent: Yeah, well, I wish she could too but that’s a lot of travel for Auntie Kate.

4. Use humor

Humor can help them move on if they get stuck asking “Why?” too many times.

Here is an example conversation:

Child: Why do we always put the eggs in the fridge?

Parent: We have to refrigerate the eggs so they stay fresh and delicious.

Child: Why?

Parent: That’s just the way it is with store bought eggs. If we didn’t they’d get yucky and warm, no thanks.

Child: Why?

Parent: The fridge is nice and cool and helps keep the eggs fresh.

Child: Why?

Parent: Well…should we let the eggs get hot? Maybe take them to the beach and give them tiny little sunglasses and sun hats?

Child (laughing): Yeah!

5. Make a plan to revisit their question later

This can help you think of a new strategy or just let them calm down and move on.

Here is an example conversation:

Child: Why does she have to wear a mask but I don’t?

Parent: That’s her family’s decision. Every family has to have a different masking plan and sometimes those plans change, too.

Child: Why?

Parent: You know, that’s a great question. You are really thinking about masks. Let me think about your question a bit more and we can discuss it again tonight at dinner. 

(But then don’t forget to actually revisit the conversation!)

Toddlers and young children frequently ask why. This is a natural, important, and very functional part of their development and learning. A couple final thoughts to keep in mind, as a parent responding to lots of “why” questions:

  • Be wary. Try not not to dive in and give them more information than they are ready for. Just because they keep asking “Why?” it does not mean they need to know all the details of a given situation or concept. There is a lot that is going to be way over their heads. Keep it age appropriate, not just in regards to content but also in the length of your answer.
  • Tune in. Really try to tune into your child when they are asking these questions. If you are scrolling on your phone, for example, or even just hustling around the kitchen like a twister doing ten things at once, and they are engaging you with “why” questions, you may be less tuned in to what is at the heart of their questions, you may be missing the point, and you may also be less skilled at helping them move away from their repetitive why questions. 

Best advice? Tune in, stay patient, and know that it’s a stage. While, yes, it can be a tad exhausting, it’s also kind of wonderful, and you may miss it one day. 

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