“Why?” “Why??” “WHY???” The countless “whyzz” of childhood have tried the patience of adults throughout the ages. But asking “why” is one of the most important strategies children have for connecting with their caregivers and learning about the world around them.
Though the question seems simple on the surface, it is anything but. “Why” has different meanings for children of different ages whose motivations for asking may be very different. In many instances, “why” does not mean why at all. Often what it really means is, “Now that’s interesting! Let’s investigate it together.”
Because of this, an adult’s most effective response across a wide range of ages and situations is often quite simply, “That’s a good question. Why do you think?”
For young children whose verbal skills are just developing, “why” may be the first and only question they are capable of forming. “Why questions” give us insight into what they are thinking about. To be sure, two- and three-year-olds want answers. “Why is the sky blue?” “Why do birds sing?” ”Why do I have to go to bed?” However, “just the facts” will seldom satisfy a child’s curiosity. What adult hasn’t had the exasperating experience of providing a detailed explanation only to have a child respond with, “But why?” Much more satisfying for a child is the chance to explore an idea with an attentive adult. “That’s a great question! Why do you think you have to go to bed?”
Cognitive skills grow rapidly during childhood. “Why” is how children discover how the world works. From a child’s viewpoint, the journey of discovery is pure delight and the foundation upon which much learning occurs. While answering children’s questions directly may provide basic information, actively engaging with children in the discovery process is a chance to step into their world. Not only does it foster the development of critical thinking skills, but it promotes child-adult communication and bonding. There is little as wonderful to a child as the attention of a caring adult who is genuinely interested in what he or she has to say. “Why do you think it’s so cold in winter?” “Why do you think dinosaurs became extinct?” “Why do you think you have to wear a bike helmet?”
Next time a child asks, “WHY?” direct the question back at them. Listen carefully to what the child has to say, then promote further exploration and learning through the following strategies:
Brainstorm for answers. Urge children to freely express possible explanations with no fear of a negative reaction. When brainstorming, all explanations are acceptable.
“Why do people sleep?”
“Let’s brainstorm some answers.”
“Because they feel tired.
“So their bodies can refresh themselves.”
“So their brains can rest.”
“Because they can’t keep their eyes open.”
“So they won’t be cranky!”
Evaluate ideas. Help children to learn how to sort through their ideas and to find ways to use other things they have learned in helping to solve their question.
“How can we assess our ideas about why people sleep?”
“What are some things you already know about sleep?”
“Do we have any books in the house that might talk about sleep?”
“Where else can we find information on sleep?”
Help children follow through with finding their answers. Showing children how to use learning resources to find their answers is a skill that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. It will teach them how to be inquisitive and how to solve problems. Offer them your help along the way.
“Let’s look up ‘sleep’ in the encyclopedia.”
“Maybe we should go to the library and look for some books about sleep.”
“Maybe whyzz.com will have some information. Let’s go online.”
“Why don’t you ask the doctor about it at your next check-up?”
Encourage children to express concerns underlying questions. Sometimes children use questions to introduce subjects that are troubling them. If, for example, a child is being bullied at school, a question may be the child’s way of opening the door of communication and seeking help.
“Why do kids have to go to school?”
“Let’s talk about that.”
“You are wondering why you have to go to school.”
“How do you feel about going to school?”
“Is there anything happening at school that bothers you?’
Meaningful dialogue and open exploration of children’s “whyzz” (and “whatzz” and “howzz” too!) will help them exercise their inquisitive minds, develop higher order thinking skills, and learn how to solve problems in creative ways. Just as important, it will encourage the development of warm, loving relationships with adults who care enough to engage in the joy of discovery with them.