Sunday, January 9, 2011

Weekly Column: Never Fear the Whys

Some years ago, we entered the why-phase with our oldest daughter.  She was around three-years-old, and quite verbal, so I’d been anticipating the onset of questions for months.  I expected sweet rows of queries and easily lobbed answers.
But expectations don’t always align with reality. 
When my toddler uttered her first unending string of whys, I did think it was adorable – a sweet kind of milestone game; I vowed to always answer her questions as honestly and willingly as possible.  And for that first why-phase, I did.  It lasted a few months, becoming tiring at times, but I thought the best way to approach it was to be encouraging.  After all, her questions reflected a true curiosity, and I’d always wanted my children to be excited about discovering things.
After the whys stopped, I found it easier to have conversations with my child; she was a little person, capable of discussion and reason!  She had ideas and wonders and solutions!  She’d grown interesting in a way that babies and toddlers are still developing; she was full of personality. 
Better still, I knew that we were past the whys.  Looking back, I could freely admit that her marathon why-sessions had been exhausting to maneuver, and I was happy to say that we’d successfully navigated that weary terrain. 
Until approximately six months later, when the whys re-infiltrated our happy home, as they’ve continued to do two or three times per year.  Really, it seems like a nasty trick being played on us by the milestone committee.  Like the birthday candles that are impossible to extinguish, the whys just keep bursting back into our lives.
 As we’re currently in the middle of a doozy of whys, I’m learning more about how to handle them.  I still want to encourage curiosity and affirm the value of my daughter’s questions, but I often try to go about it differently.  She’s five now – completely able to come up with answers of her own, even if they’re just ideas. 
“Whoa!” I might yell while driving in the car.  “That car just completely cut me off!  Yikes!”
“Why?” The inevitable query comes from the back seat.
“Well, the person driving it cut in front of me really fast – they could have bumped into us and caused an accident.”
“Why would it cause an accident?” 
“Because they got too close to us, and I wasn’t expecting them to be so reckless.”
“Why did they get too close?”
“I don’t know – maybe they didn’t see us.”
“Um – I don’t really know.  Maybe because they were in a hurry.”
(And here’s where I’ve finally learned my lesson.) “Hmm…there could be lots of reasons. Why do YOU think they might have been in a hurry?”
At the very least, this halts the endless line of whys, but it does something better, too.  It shifts the focus from my daughter receiving answers to her discovering answers.  I could say something about creative hypotheses and scientific reasoning and logical deduction – but I won’t. 
She’s capable of coming up with her own ideas about how the world works, and I find myself looking for reasons to provoke questions so I can reverse them in a way that will make her think.  Even if she gets irritated at my geeky antics, I trust she’s still learning more than if I’d provided an instant answer.
My younger daughter is now entering the why-phase as well.  I might have been worn down before we’d even begun, lackadaisically responding with “Because.” or “Stop asking WHY!”, but now I’m filled with courage. 
The why-phase can’t scare me anymore.


  1. This works well with 'are we there yet?' After the 10th time I was asked by my five year old, in the first hour of a 3-4 hour trip, I asked her, what do you think? Are we at your grandparents' house?

  2. wisely spoken! doesn't it feel good when you feel like you might -- for a second at least -- have "won" as a parent? that you solve some conundrum? but then, i always find, those rascals change SOMEthing and you're back to the drawing board. :)

  3. love 3 year old is now called "The Why Girl" :)

  4. What a great idea! I am definitely going to try that the next time my kids get into a 'why??' loop. :)

    Also, thanks so much for leaving such a kind comment on my blog. I love hearing from other like-minded souls in the blogosphere!

  5. I'm gonna have to try throwing some whys back at my kid!


Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?