Why?

This is probably the most-asked question by anyone under the age of three.  In fact, there has been an epidemic of “Why” in my classroom in recent weeks.

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If you were to ask me “Why (is 'why?' the most-asked question by anyone under the age of three)?”, I could answer in any number of ways.  One would be “Because I said so; after all I'm a preschool teacher, I know these things,” which is certainly an answer, but it's an answer designed to stop rather than respond to the question.  Another would be “Because it just is;  I've heard dozens of two-year olds ask 'why?' dozens of times over more than a dozen years of teaching, so take my word for it.”  (Kids over the age of three ask the same question, by the way, just in increasingly complex and specific ways, which they learn to do partially as a result of experiencing the irritation in adults who have been asked the seemingly same question [“why?”] too many times in a row.)  But the best and the real answer to “Why do they ask why?” is that young kids want to learn how to get around in the world,  but they don't yet have the maps, and the answers to “Why?” will help them to construct those maps. 

Another way to interpret a child's initial question “Why?” might be to ask it this way:  “What happened before what just happened?”  And a great answer to this question and the ones that will likely follow would include not just explaining what happened before, but what will or might happen after, as these things relate to the child.  The conversation might go something like this:

Mommy is going to take you to the dentist tomorrow.

Why?

Because you have all of your baby teeth, and you need to go to the dentist.

Why?

Because the dentist wants to look at your teeth to make sure that they are strong and healthy.

Why?

Because you need strong and healthy teeth to eat your food.

Why?

Because eating food makes you strong and healthy so you can feel good and have lots of fun.

Why?

At this point, the parent could choose to continue answering these “why”s, or could turn the question back to the child:

Do you like to feel good and have lots of fun?  or  Did you know that Daddy went to the dentist last week and the dentist gave him a new toothbrush—do you want to see it? 

So here's the map this exchange has helped draw:   

(Start) baby teeth--- Child (you are here) --- dentist --- healthy teeth --- eat food --- feel good --- lots of fun (destination). 

Because the questions have been answered, the directions are clear.  Because the parent intuits the possible anxiety behind the questions, the road to be travelled is also clear and the desired destination is identified, and is not scary.  This is a map that can then be referred to (“Remember when you went to the dentist?”) and modified as needed for a trip to the doctor, to the allergist, to the audiologist, etc.

Of course it would be much easier (in the short run) for the parent if the exchange went like this:

Mommy is going to take you to the dentist tomorrow.

Why?

Because she made an appointment, and you have to go because I said so.  Don't worry.

This parent, like the one in the previous conversation, gets points for letting the child know well in advance of something new that is going to happen.  The trouble with this approach is that it has the potential to create much anxiety, because there are many unknowns.  Who is the dentist?  What is an appointment?  What will the dentist do?  The parent in this exchange has also felt the anxiety in the child, but has chosen to end the conversation in an attempt to end the anxiety.    

Here is the map for this exchange:  (Start) ??appointment??-----Child (you are here)-------??dentist?? (destination). 

A child with this kind of map (a mysterious point of origin and an unfamiliar destination, with lots of unknown stuff in between) may be afraid and therefore be uncooperative.  The parent who thought s/he had saved time by cutting off questions may actually lose time in trying to get to their destination, because the map has a lot of uncharted (for the child), unacknowledged (on the part of the parent) territory.  And maybe this same parent thought that they were saving their child from unnecessary worrying by assuming that the child wouldn't worry if there were no details.  But a child's mind, just like nature, abhors a vacuum, and will insert details if none are given, some of which may be frightening or may lead to disappointment (“Big Brother told me the dentist was just going to give me a balloon and some stickers!”).  I still remember being told as a child that I had to go to the doctor for a shot, and thinking the doctor was going to shoot me with a cannon-type contraption.

So the next time your child asks “Why?”, think of it as a variation of the game of Jeopardy.  You've given an answer, now you just have to figure out what the real question is that will take you to the next answer.  So you and your child can both win.