Today we’re talking all about the toddler why stage, why it happens and how to navigate it. This post was written and first published back in 2017 when we hit the why stage with Lincoln at age 2.
Two months ago we hit the “why” and the “no!” stage at the very same time. And it really shouldn’t just be called the “why” stage, because if toddlers only asked “why” once, it wouldn’t be so overwhelming. Answering my toddler’s constant questions has done more for my patience in the last eight weeks than just about anything else in parenting. That said, I’ve delved into everything I could find on toddlers asking why and wanted to share what I’ve learned and what strategies have worked for us as I try to keep my sanity through it all.
First, if you’re in the thick of the toddler “why”s, you’re not alone.
So far today he’s asked “why” 47 times and he hasn’t even taken his afternoon nap yet. The longest stretch he’s done is 9 “why”s before I gave him a satisfactory answer.
Why your toddler asks why
Getting a little insight into why my toddler keeps asking this one word question has helped me step back and work on patiently answering the endless questions a little bit better. Here’s what I’ve learned about why they are constantly asking why:
To learn more
Your toddler is anxious to learn as much as he can about his surrounding environment. This curiosity can either be encouraged by you as you answer his questions or it can be stifled as you ignore his incessant requests for more information.
I try and remind myself I’m helping his brain grow, and this is one step to having a curious and engaged student years down the road. Sometimes, it works better than others 😉
To get your attention
Your toddler has realized that asking you questions is one easy way to get your attention quickly. Just as a toddler acting out is often in need of more love and attention, sometimes the incessant “why”s are pleads for a few extra moments of eye contact.
To stay in control
It is so easy for a toddler to feel out of control (we talked a lot about this in my post on Why your toddler says “NO!” and how to respond while keeping your sanity). Sometimes, their repetitive use of the question, “why?” is simply a way to control the conversation and discussion. They may still be developing the language skills to ask complex questions and love the power that comes from mastering this one word conversation starter.
What to do when your toddler asks “why?”
So now that you’re familiar with why they could be asking “why” all the time, here were the suggestions I came across and how they’re working for us.
Before you pick one suggestion to work on, I think it’s worth spending some time trying to figure out the reason behind your toddler’s “why”s. For us, it seems to mostly be wanting more information with the need for more attention thrown in there occasionally. Realizing this helped me choose which suggestions to focus on.
Also, we’ve been implementing a lot of these for a couple of weeks and the “WHY”s HAVE NOT STOPPED (not that I want them to after learning more about them). But, I’m a lot more patient in responding to them, and they lead to more meaningful conversation than they did last month.
Don’t ignore the questions
It’s tempting, I know. Especially when you get to the seventh one in a row or the 40th in the hour, but these questions are indicative of the natural curiosity in your toddler, something you don’t want to stifle. He’s insatiably curious about the world around him, and this is an opportunity to feed that curiosity.
Be Okay with Saying “I don’t know”
I’m a mom, not an expert on construction equipment or weather patterns. If Lincoln wanted to know about camera apertures or political theory, I could answer his questions more accurately. I’ve learned to be okay with not always knowing the answers to his questions and not getting frustrated when I don’t.
There are also plenty of times the questions he asks aren’t outside of my expertise–I just don’t know the answer. I often turn an “I don’t know” into an “I’m not sure, why do YOU think that bird has landed in the tree.”
Search for the Answer Together
A tip I read recently for encouraging life-long learning is for kids to see their parents searching for answers. I haven’t yet suggested to Lincoln that we look something up together but I’m excited to use his incessant “why”s as in indication of his interest in something and then spend time together learning about that topic. I think a great response to a string of “why”s you don’t know the answer to is, “I don’t know the answer to that one but I bet we could find the answer _____” (online/in a book/at the library).
Answer the real question
The biggest takeaway from my reading on why toddlers ask “why” is that they aren’t always asking for a cause and effect answer. Often they’re really just looking to understand more about something they’re seeing or experiencing. If your toddler asks why he has to get in the car he might just want to know where you’re going and how long you’re going to be gone for. If your child is asking why you’re having pasta for dinner, he really may just want to know what pasta is or what you’re having to go with it.
Instead of feeling the need to explain the cause and effect in your answer, simply give them more information about the topic you’re discussing.
Another example I really liked is how this concept applies to answering questions you don’t know the answer to.
For example, I might point out if Lincoln can see the green leaves on a tree and he’ll ask “why?” Instead of trying to remember photosynthesis and getting frustrated with my lack of details, I’ll respond with, “Some trees are green all year round. These are called evergreen trees. Some trees have leaves that change color and fall off before new ones grow in. In the fall the leaves change to orange or yellow or red or brown before they fall off. Usually the leaves grow back green in the spring.”
See? I was able to explain something more about the tree being green that was on his level of understanding without having to actually answer the question he asked (side note: I don’t get too complicated with him but I often don’t try to stick to his level of understanding because I find I am constantly underestimating how much he can understand). Lincoln is usually pretty satisfied with this type of answer and ends with “yes!” instead of another “why?”
This concept has made the biggest difference in how I respond to Lincoln’s questions and my patience levels while doing so. It also gives me some freedom to direct the conversation.
Turn the question back to him
My mom loves to tell the story of when she was at her wits end of my incessant “why”s. We were on a walk and saw our neighbor put a letter in the mailbox. We’d gone through a couple of different “why” questions until my mom turned it back to me, “why do you think she was walking to her mailbox.”
“Because she has an elephant in her bathtub and she is writing a letter to the zoo to see if they want to take him to live there.” Obviously 😉
I love how this tactic encourages imagination and gives you, as the parent, an insight into your child’s mind and thought processes.
When I try to ask Lincoln the “why” question (he’s 27 months) he often thinks I’m trying to correct him and will repeat the long question I asked him back to me (he does the same thing most of the time I say “thank you” after he says “please.” He quickly corrects himself of “please thank you mama” and now says both of them together half the time :P). So this one doesn’t work well for us yet but I’m excited to keep using it.
Give him attention when he doesn’t ask for it
This one is especially important if your toddler is asking you “why” because he likes the attention he gets from you when he does so. Find other ways for him to feel loved and you’ll find his questions start to stem more from his curiosity instead of his need for affection.
Change the subject after you answer
I’ve made it a personal rule not to ignore his questions, but I do find that sometimes Lincoln will keep asking “why” endlessly. When we’ve gone through two or three iterations I’ll give my answer and then quickly, before he has time to ask it again, ask him another question. Sometimes it has to do with what we’re talking about and sometimes it is just to redirect his attention. For example, “Oh, do you see that blue car over there?” or “Lincoln, what did we do together this morning?” It works like a charm 🙂
Force him to ask the full question
Instead of accepting an endless string of “Why”s, require your toddler to ask a complete sentence question in order to get a response. For example, if you tell him it’s time to get in the car and he says “why,” hep him ask “Why do we need to get in the car?” in order to have you answer.
This is a recent tip I just came across, and I’ve only been enforcing it for a few days. It’s hard because Lincoln doesn’t have the vocabulary to ask the full question a lot of the time, and at first he didn’t understand what I was asking him. But, I love the concept of this strategy, encouraging vocabulary while cutting down on the “why”s that aren’t important enough to take all the effort to ask. If you use this method and are consistent about it, I think it would be appropriate to ignore incessant “why”s when your child isn’t asking the full question (similar to how I don’t always respond to Lincoln’s request for milk unless he’s asking politely. Instead I’ll ask, “How can we ask that nicely?” and when he asks with a “please” I’ll go and get his milk out of the fridge).
Phew, that was a lot! I hope you found some of it helpful and I’d love to know which of the strategies work for you and your toddler.
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I’ve found that, when I try to answer children at this stage of development with the reason for something, they are left cold. After conversing with thousands of children, I’ve decided that what they really mean is, “That’s interesting to me. Let’s talk about that together. Tell me more, please?” When I’ve connected with children and begun to spin a tale to answer this question, they’ve sat enthralled. There was no need to mention because, or therefore, or cause, or effect. They don’t need to know why, all they need is animated attention and me saying whatever came to mind about that subject. After a brief interchange, we were both happy. Let me give you an example.
I remember when one of my own sons asked me why the sky was blue. I told him that on sunny days the sky was blue and that on cloudy days it was gray and that at night it was very, very dark. Sometimes in-between day and night, it’s a pretty pink or orange. And there are cool things in the sky. The sun gives us heat and light. It’s like the stars, only closer. There are planets that go around the sun, and we live on one of them, called Earth.
Notice that I didn’t at all answer why the sky is blue, but I did connect with him and answer his real question. He was delighted with our interchange and I got an enthusiastic “cool,” not another automatic “why?” We both won.
When babies cry, they are not just asking for food or a new wardrobe. They are asking for you! Our young scholars are curious and eager to explore the world, but they are still asking for you. They want to explore this fascinating world with the people they feel the safest around and love the most.
This communication dance doesn’t end with the “why” phase of development. As children grow, their communication skills become more refined, and it is often more difficult to hear the “That’s interesting to me. Let’s talk about that together,” underneath the surface. As we look for the invitation into our children’s lives and relate to them at their level of interest, we’ll find countless opportunities to engage with them. This communication dance is not an easy one. Every time we learn the steps, they seem to develop a new set of moves. So, what does “Mom, can I borrow the keys to the car?” really mean? 🙂