Alex is just entering the “why” phase. His version is “Mummy tell you what that means” (he hasn’t quite got pronouns yet). Like many parents, I have started to wonder why children ask why, and what answer are they looking for?
I have heard Psychology referred to as the science of the obvious, and in this case, I think that is quite apt. Ultimately, children ask why all the time because they are curious, and want to know. However, in this case the science does shed some extra perspective. I came across a few interesting findings:
1. Children are looking for certain types of information.
2. When children repeat the same question, it is usually because the first answer didn’t answer their real question.
3. Children assess your answer quality to decide whether you are a good person to ask in the future.
Let’s explore these.
Why children ask why: Because they are looking for certain types of information.
A number of studies have examined which answers satisfy children’s curiosity, and which do not. 2-4 year old children were given opportunities to ask about a novel object. When children asked ambiguous questions, half of them were given the name of the object, the other half were told the function. Children told the name tended to ask more follow-up questions, than children given the function. Children given the name also devised follow-up questions that inquired directly about the function. So it seems that children of this age, are less interested in item labels, and more interested functions. (1)
Another experiment gave 3 and 5 year olds two explanations for familiar and novel events. One explanation was circular, the other was non-circular. The 5 year olds preferred non-circular explanations, 3 year olds preferred non-circular explanations when answers were short, but showed no preference when answers were long. This does not imply that 3 year olds prefer short answers but that they can recognise circular logic when answers are shorter. (2)
Another study asked 4 and 5 year olds what information they wanted, whether they wanted to learn about (for example) “this one echidna in the picture” or “this kind of animal, echidnas“. Children tended to prefer to learn about the kind of animal, not the particular animal. (3)
So it seems that children are particularly interested in function not label, real explanations over circular explanations, and categories of objects rather than an individual object.
When children repeat the same question, it is usually because the first answer didn’t answer their real question.
Children 2-5 years old were more likely to repeat the same question if they received a non-explanation, compared to if they received an explanation. This study looked at real dialogue between child and carer. Non-explanations included answers like “I don’t know”, “just because”, on-topic information that didn’t explain, changing topic, etc. (4). Studies 1 and 4 both suggest that children repeat questions because they genuinely want to know something that hasn’t been answered.
Children often ask ambiguous questions. Sometimes we may feel like we are answering the question, when actually their question is deeper than they can express. The studies above suggest that children may be interested in function, causation, and the characteristics of categories. The education literature, which is based primarily on child-care experience, also adds valuable insight. Questions can also be a way for children to seek connection with their parents, and to raise issues that are emotionally troubling for them (5). An example given, was a child persistently questioning her parents about whether they were going to put the car in the garage. It turns out that the location of the car wasn’t bothering her. What she really wanted to know was whether her parents were going out that night (5). Other examples might include “Why did he hit me?”, the child may not only want an explanation, but also acknowledgement and exploration of the hurt feelings. This is where it helps to acknowledge, name, and accept the emotions behind the question, as discussed in “Teaching emotion management: Helicopter parenting and sleep“. Another good example is “why do children have to go to school”, which may not be a simple curiosity question, but a red flag about bullying or other issues at school.
Children assess your answer quality to decide whether you are a good person to ask in the future.
Even young children become selective about who they ask for information based on the quality of earlier answers. For example the 3 and 5 year olds who heard circular and non-circular explanations (2) selectively asked the informant who had previously provided the non-circular explanations. Similarly, 3 and 4 year olds were more likely to believe the names and functions ascribed to novel objects if they were given by previously accurate informants and not inaccurate informants (6). By 4 years of age (less so at 3 years of age), children would also selectively direct questions about fixing a toy to a person who had previously demonstrated ability to fix toys but not name them, and direct questions about labels to a person good at naming but not fixing items (7).
Given all this, how will I respond to the influx of questioning that is just beginning?
1. See questioning as an opportunity to connect and explore with my kids.
2. Appreciate the curiosity. This is a value I want to encourage, even if it sometimes feels tedious.
3. If my answers are not satisfactory, consider what the real question might be.
4. Use this as an opportunity to teach Alex how to find the answers for himself. For a great article on this see “Why Children Ask Why” by Dr Dawn Taylor at Whyzz.
Ask me why
This post was inspired by a question from one of my subscribers. Thank you Giselle! If you have anything you want me to research, please let me know. I can’t promise to get to everything, but I will try.
1. Nelson, D. G. K., Egan, L. C., & Holt, M. B. (2004). When children ask,“what is it?” what do they want to know about artifacts? Psychological Science, 15(6), 384-389.
2. Corriveau, K. H., & Kurkul, K. E. (2014). “Why does rain fall?”: Children prefer to learn from an informant who uses noncircular explanations. Child development, 85(5), 1827-1835.
3. Cimpian, A., & Park, J. J. (2014). Tell me about pangolins! Evidence that children are motivated to learn about kinds. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(1), 46.
4. Frazier, B. N., Gelman, S. A., & Wellman, H. M. (2009). Preschoolers’ search for explanatory information within adult–child conversation. Child development, 80(6), 1592-1611.
5. Warren, S. (1979). Questions children ask. Early Childhood Education Journal, 6(3), 16-18.
6. Birch, S. A., Vauthier, S. A., & Bloom, P. (2008). Three-and four-year-olds spontaneously use others’ past performance to guide their learning. Cognition, 107(3), 1018-1034.
7. Kushnir, T., Vredenburgh, C., & Schneider, L. A. (2013). “Who can help me fix this toy?” the distinction between causal knowledge and word knowledge guides preschoolers’ selective requests for information. Developmental psychology, 49(3), 446.
This was so interesting Nicole. And you are right, the science does make obvious sense. I think it is really an important point to listen for the real question. I also read somewhere (I need to keep better track of where I read things!) that when children ask why sometimes you can answer with “what do you think.” to encourage divergent thinking. I have tried this with J and he will come up with the most amazing theories. I guess, now that I think of it– usually those are for his “how” questions. (:
Thanks Ashley. It is a really fun stage now that they can talk and give us insight into what the world looks like to them!