Toddlers and the “why” phase

Unfortunately, there are no official statistics about how many toddlers go through the “why” phase. If you’re unfamiliar with the “why” phase, it’s that stage in toddler development when many children decide it’s time to take over the world one three-letter question at a time by asking their parents to explain every statement they make. It’s not universal, but it is pretty common, and it can hit at any time, so even if you haven’t noticed any more than the average number of “whys” lately, that doesn’t mean that you’re safe.

Why do toddlers love to ask “why?”

“To get more information,” might seem like the kind of answer that’s just too obvious, but when it comes to toddlers, you can never be too sure what they mean. Luckily, a 2009 paper published in Child Development takes the time to explore the question, and they believe the evidence suggests that toddlers ask “why” so much because they want more information about the world. Giving an informational answer, the study found, was more likely to satisfy the toddlers in the study, or to prompt them to ask new questions. Not answering, on the other hand, or brushing them off, was more likely to lead to the question being asked again, and presumably more loudly.

Of course, “to know more things” is a pretty general reason, too, and every toddler is different. Many parents also report that a toddler’s repetition of “why?” can be a way of keeping a conversation going, or of asking for you to keep talking to them about something, even if they doesn’t have the words for to ask the questions they might actually be curious about. In other cases, toddlers can use “why?” as a way of asking you to keep your attention on them, or even as a way of getting a rise out of you, if they’ve learned that asking “why?” is a good way to do so.

How to deal with the “why” phase

As much as a child’s curiosity is a beautiful and exciting part of them, when it comes to the “why” phase, depending on exactly how, er, enthusiastic your little one is, you may end up thinking longingly of when this phase might end. Like the Child Development article suggests, though, in many cases, the best way to move past all the whys is to answer them. This doesn’t mean you have to know everything – sometimes a toddler’s line of questioning can take you in a surprisingly scientific direction. “I don’t know, let’s find out,” is always a good answer, though.

Another common strategy, especially for when you’re in the middle of something, and not quite in a good position to stop what you’re doing and go on a research spiral about the migration habits of frogs, is to ask your little one what they think – you might get an answer that’s better than the real thing. This can be useful if Baby likes to ask you questions you know they know the answer to, though, or questions they ask a lot. Knowing how to answer you will boost their confidence, and hearing their answer will give you a break from having to give your own.

Like every other stage of their toddlerhood, the “why” phase will pass – but the information about the way the world works that you pass on to Baby while it’s there will stick around, so if you can, try to have a little fun with it – you’re helping to build the framework of how they think about the world around them.

  • University of Hawaii at Manoa. “University of Hawai’i at Manoa professor co-authors child development study.” EurekAlert. American Association for the Advancement of Science, 13 November 2003. Web.

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