Why Kids Ask “Why?”

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

Kate Davis-Muffett, age 4, stared at the police cars in front of the National Zoo, in Washington, D.C., as she and her mother, Tricia, passed by.

“Why are the police there?” Kate wanted to know.

“Maybe to make sure no one takes the animals,” answered her mom.

“Why would someone take them?”

“Maybe they want a pet hippo.”

“Why can’t they have one?”

“Because the children would be sad if the animals were gone from the zoo.”

“Why?”

“Because they want to see hippos.”

“Why don’t they go to see another animal then?

Tricia saw an out: “That’s a really good idea, Kate.”

Whew. Starting around age 3, kids have an explosion of “Wh-” questions, says Mina Kim, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Your child may sound like a broken record, but her endless queries show that she’s curious about the world — and finally able to ask about it.

As exhausting as it can be, it’s best to answer as many questions as you can. As you keep chatting, your child will pick up some important language skills: new words, grammatical rules, and turn-taking in conversation. If you just can’t take it anymore, try, “You have so many good questions!” and then change the subject.

Or turn the question around, and see how she might answer it. Replying to “Why is the sky blue?” with “What do you think?” is a good way to encourage her to get creative. If nothing else, you’ll probably hear some funny responses.

What’s going on in your child’s brain at this age (2 to 4 years old):

“Our childhood years are always filled with exploration and learning, with or without intention,” says Dr. Naheed Ali, M.D., of the Pennsylvania Institute of Technology. “The neuromotor development of the brain in a child who is 2 to 4 years old depends on familial as well as psychiatric factors.”

At this age, says Dr. Ali, a child’s brain is in the preoperational stage, where mental strategies include:

  • Transductive reasoning: “That rude person got sick because he’s mean.”
  • Egocentrism: The child hasn’t reached the place where they can understand that other people view things differently than they do.
  • Singular vision: The child may be incapable of picturing two facets of a problem simultaneously. To know the full function of a roadway intersection, for instance, the child must recognize the directional concept of forward and back—ideas that simply may not exist in the child’s mind at the time.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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