Why Do Toddlers Ask Why?

“Why do I have to wear shoes outside?”
“Why does a cat meow?”
“Why, why, why?”

Do all the questions make you feel as if your child is interrogating you? To all the exhausted parents out there who would like to ask, “Why must you keep asking me questions!?” fear not. It’s the toddler ‘why’ stage, and they – and you – will get through it.

When do kids start asking ‘why?’

Kids tend to become especially curious as preschoolers, around 3 to 4 years old. However, they may even begin asking basic questions as early as 18 months, says Dr. Stefani Hines, M.D., F.A.A.P., developmental-behavioral pediatrician at William Beaumont Center for Human Development.

“They’re opening up and discovering their world while trying to engage others in their environment,” says Dr. Hines. Your child is using all of those random inquiries to learn about how the world works, not to make your head explode. They’re also learning to conduct a back-and-forth conversational exchange and develop their language and processing skills.

Answering tactics

The next time your child gets on a “why” jag, Dr. Hines suggests parents “give honest answers to the best of their ability.” Parents also can turn their child’s question back on them. If a child asks, “Why do I have to wear shoes outside?” then you could respond by asking, “Why do you think you have to wear shoes outside?” This can challenge your children to think about why that requirement makes sense.

Sometimes, questions may start popping up at an inappropriate time, such as in the checkout lane at the grocery store. Dr. Hines advises you tell your child that you’ll answer their questions once you both are in the car, or at some other appropriate time. Parents might also find it useful to schedule a special question and answer time during the day or week.

“On a trip from Michigan to Florida, my two daughters probably asked two hundred or more questions in a day,” says Trenton mom Nyree Cheff. “After hours of questions, we had to put a limit on them for our own sanity: five questions each that lasted 15 minutes.

“We just felt that if they were really interested in knowing, why waste a teachable moment? My girls are well-versed in many subjects thanks to their questions!”

Hitting a wall

While your knowledge provides a wealth of information for your child, you can’t know everything. When you are stumped by your child’s latest question, “the best thing is just to be simply honest,” says Dr. Hines. “Say ‘Let’s go look it up, go to the library, or ask someone else.'”

The way you answer your child’s questions now could affect parent-child communication in the future.

“If a parent is really busy and can’t take the time to answer questions, that child might seek conversation with another person instead of going to the parent,” says Dr. Hines. Your patience at this inquisitive time in your child’s life is not only helping your child grow, but helping you bond.

This post was originally published in 2011 and has been updated for 2016.


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