Why is water wet? Why is the sky blue? Why is the moon called ‘the moon’?
Parents of toddlers are familiar with the ‘why, why, why’ game—young kids are endlessly curious, and with every answer we give comes another question. Around and around we go, trying to answer the secrets of the cosmos and the meaning of life.
Between the ages of 2 and 5, kids ask an average of 40,000 questions, says Warren Burger, author of A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. Our kids are innately curious… about a lot of things! In fact, questioning peaks around 4 years old, when kids ask an average of 300 questions per day.
Curiosity, it turns out, is really important for our kids’ development. Psychologists view curiosity as a life force, vital to happiness, intellectual growth and wellbeing. It’s a good thing our kids ask so many questions, then!
Around the age of 5, though, our kids stop asking so many ‘why’s’ as they sense that their curiosity may be taking a toll on the adults in their lives. But, all learning begins with curiosity, and curiosity is only satisfied when questions are answered.
So, what can we parents do to keep our kids’ wonder alive and help them in their quest to learn?
Take a deep breath, be grateful and proud your kid is a natural answer-seeker, and use the following tips to keep your sanity while nurturing your kid’s curiosity — and possibly deepening your inquiry skills, too. After all, asking ‘why’ is a tool parents can also use to dig deeper with their kids.
Make it cool to ask questions
Kids stop asking so many questions at around 5 or 6 years old, because they get adult feedback that questions aren’t welcome. With persistent questions, parents get frustrated, say they don’t have time, or tell their kid to stop asking so many questions. Kids hear the message loud and clear: no. more. questions. And that’s not a good thing.
We want our kids to be curious—curiosity is the key to learning and growing. So, make it cool in your house to ask questions:
- Model curiosity by asking your own questions and seeking answers; and
- Actively point out that you are proud that your kid is so inquisitive, because asking questions is an important skill for becoming a lifelong learner.
Challenge your kid to find the answer
We’ve all done it… after the millionth ‘why,’ we finally turn the tables with the brilliant, “I don’t know, why don’t you figure it out?” comeback. While that response can sometimes come out of frustration, it’s actually not far off from a great idea.
Educators use this as a strategy in the classroom to push kids to think deeply and challenge themselves. Instead of answering questions for students, they use inquiry-based learning to get students to research and share insights on questions that interest them. You can use the same technique at home. When you don’t know the answer, turn the tables and challenge your kid to find their own answers. “What do you think?” is a perfectly fine response. Follow it up with even deeper questions as they come up. “Why do you think that?” “Why could that be?” If your kid is older, ask them if they’d be interested in sharing their takeaways with the family in a presentation or dinner-time talk.
If your kid doesn’t have all of the skills or resources to find the answer on their own, team up with them to find the answer together. Without feeling too overburdened or getting into the trap of micromanaging, you can provide just the right amount of support to set them up for success in their quest.
Google is your friend here! You’ve got a world of answers at your fingertips, so use the Internet to find an expert on the topic. Maybe you can even find a short and engaging YouTube video that entertains and informs the two of you. If the answer really excites your kid, it may be an opportunity to dig even deeper into an area that may be a burgeoning interest. Or perhaps you’ll end up designing an experiment to help your kid learn even more.
Have your own ‘why, why, why’ moment
Take a cue from your kid and brush up on your own inquiry skills, especially when it comes to questions you have about your kid. It’s a good way to dig deeper into who they are as a person and how you can support them as they continue to grow.
You can use ‘why, why, why’ for kids of any age. For toddlers, dig into why they like or dislike certain foods, games, or activities. For older kids, go deep on why they’re so adamant about skipping bedtime, why they aren’t doing their homework, or why they find so much joy in certain extracurriculars.
Answer another question entirely
Part of the frustration of hearing a thousand ‘whys’ from your kid is realizing that as a full-grown adult, you don’t have all of the answers. Is there something wrong with me for not knowing why the sky is blue? you may wonder. Who would have thought our kids would have us questioning our own intelligence?
Pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene cautions parents to understand that by asking ‘why’ kids are not necessarily asking ‘why’ as adults understand the term, especially when it comes to younger kids with limited vocabulary. Dr. Greene explains, “What they really mean is, ‘That’s interesting to me. Let’s talk about that together. Tell me more, please?’”
So, when his son asked why the sky was blue, he recalls: “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 Dr. Greene didn’t answer his son’s question, but instead engaged him in a conversation around his curiosity. Dr. Greene says, “He was delighted with our interchange and I got an enthusiastic ‘cool,’ not another automatic ‘why?’ We both won.”
Just like an expert publicist might advise—you don’t always have to answer the exact question being asked!
By making it cool to ask questions, challenging your kids to find their own answers, modeling curiosity yourself, and realizing the barriers of language, you can cut down some of the frustration that comes with a billion ‘whys’ while keeping your kid curious, one question at a time.