As the mother of a young child, I’ve heard numerous explanations about why kids love asking "why." Some claim children often already have their own answer in mind and don’t actually want an explanation. One parenting advice website I encountered suggested that children ask “why” with the intention of changing a parent’s answer which they find displeasing. Others theorize that it’s just a strategy for dragging out conversation or gaining attention. I can’t speak for all kids, but when my son wants attention, he doesn’t leave anything to chance. He prefers the more straightforward strategy of saying, “Hey everyone, look at me!”
Maybe my son’s inquisitive nature has begun to rub off on me, because recently I decided to get to the bottom of the “whys.” Research suggests that young children aren’t simply seeking to exhaust their parents when they ask a continuous stream of questions, though that is likely to occur. Instead, it appears preschoolers are actively seeking new information. And doesn’t this make sense? Facts of life that we take for granted are puzzling to someone who has only been on the planet a few years. They finally have the verbal skills to ask questions and the cognitive ability to grasp more complex topics. Why wouldn’t young children ask why?
Change occurs when brave, confident individuals feel compelled to ask "why?"
But what about when our children not only question our grocery list but also our parenting choices? When children ask for explanations about limits and boundaries, it’s easy to feel as though they’re challenging our authority. Parent educator Nancy Samalin believes that taking the time to explain why rules exist only leads to frustration, “Not only does the child remain unconvinced, but you may find that when your explanation doesn’t work, you become angrier than if you hadn’t offered any at all.” While I can certainly empathize with question-weary parents everywhere, I’m not sure I agree with Ms. Samalin’s summation, particularly for young children. For practical purposes, explaining a boundary can actually be effective. When he understands that a behavior is unsafe, my cautious child is more than happy to avoid it. But he needs that fact explained to him in order to understand it. Explaining a rule also gives us an opportunity to examine why it exists. I’ve had the experience of questioning a rule that made sense when my son was younger only to realize it’s no longer applicable.
Of course, this may not always be the case. Sometimes we may enact a limit for a good reason, and our children may find it unpleasant and ask why it exists. They may disagree with us, and we may need to maintain the boundary anyway. That’s okay! Children deserve an explanation, even if they don’t agree with it or entirely understand it. Providing an explanation sends our children the message that we're comfortable with their questioning us, and that we respect them enough to engage in a discussion. When parents respond to questions with “because I said so” or “because I’m the parent” we are teaching our children that they aren’t worthy of our time. We’re also teaching them that authority must be followed unquestioningly. Because I value critical thinking and desire my son to feel confident in his ability to think independently, I’m willing to answer his questions. In his groundbreaking book The Myth of the Spoiled Child, Alfie Kohn makes a compelling case for encouraging our children to be inquisitive. He argues that it's a matter of social justice and human rights and that by "raising rebels" we can enact cultural change. He believes parents should encourage their children to feel comfortable saying, “‘...If you say or do something that doesn’t make sense, I’ll ask why…” He also states, “...we should invite our children to join us in asking which rules are worth following and why.” If we wish to raise children who feel comfortable questioning the establishment, they must grow up in an environment where respectful questioning is encouraged.
We may grow weary of the questions. We may get impatient and we may even get annoyed. In those moments I encourage you to remember that no progress has been made by accepting what is and has always been. Change occurs when brave, confident individuals feel compelled to ask "why?"