Why Children ask “Why”


My three-year-old keeps asking me "why?" about everything. Why is the sky blue? Why are there clouds? Why can't I go outdide? Why do I have to be nice? Sometimes it doesn't seem to matter what the answer is, he's never satisfied. And I m exasperated. How do I handle his questions?
Palo Alto, California

Dr. Greene's Answer

You’ve asked a question I’ve heard over and over from parents all around the world. We love to hear the quaint expressions our kids come up with as their language skills blossom, but sometimes their insistent questions seems a bit like the drip, drip, drip of an ancient water torture.

We’re frustrated for two reasons. Often we don’t know the real answers to the innocent questions they ask, but even when we do, our answers don’t slow the pace of their relentless questions. That’s because we’ve misunderstood their language and think that when they ask “why?” they mean the same thing we mean when we ask why. Our cause-and-effect answers miss the mark, and so they fail to satisfy. I’ll give you the key to unlock their language so you can answer the real question behind their many, many “whys.” Then both of you can revel in the joy of your communication.

When your son was born, his only method of communication was to cry. He used the same sound to mean, “I’m hungry,” “I’m bored,” “This diaper’s on too tight,” “My tummy really, really hurts!” “I miss you, mommy!!” and the myriad of other things he was experiencing, feeling, and thinking. An amazing thing happened — you began to intuitively know what his cries meant, and he began to use slightly different cries to express different needs and desires. Your dance was clumsy at first, but in a brief time the two of you developed your very own language, gliding across the verbal dance floor with style and grace.

When children begin to learn real words, the words usually don’t correspond exactly to the way adults use them. Often a specific word is used to indicate an entire category or visa versa. “Dog” might mean any animal, while “meow” might mean “cat” — but only one cat. These early discrepancies are cute and obvious — and should be caught on videotape if at all possible. But by the time children are able to speak in sentences, it sounds deceptively like they mean the same thing we do. This happens at about the same time their curiosity, imagination, and creativity skyrocket.

They begin to ask, “Why?” “Why?!?!” “WHY, Mommy, WHYYYYY?”

I’ve found that, when I try to answer children at this stage of development with the reason for something, they are left cold. After conversing with thousands of children, I’ve decided that what they really mean is, “That’s interesting to me. Let’s talk about that together. Tell me more, please?” When I’ve connected with children and begun to spin a tale to answer this question, they’ve sat enthralled. There was no need to mention because, or therefore, or cause, or effect. They don’t need to know why, all they need is animated attention and me saying whatever came to mind about that subject. After a brief interchange, we were both happy. Let me give you an example.

I remember when one of my own sons asked me why the sky was blue. I told him that on sunny days the sky was blue and that on cloudy days it was gray and that at night it was very, very dark. Sometimes in-between day and night, it’s a pretty pink or orange. And there are cool things in the sky. The sun gives us heat and light. It’s like the stars, only closer. There are planets that go around the sun, and we live on one of them, called Earth.

Notice that I didn’t at all answer why the sky is blue, but I did connect with him and answer his real question. He was delighted with our interchange and I got an enthusiastic “cool,” not another automatic “why?” We both won.

When babies cry, they are not just asking for food or a new wardrobe. They are asking for you! Our young scholars are curious and eager to explore the world, but they are still asking for you. They want to explore this fascinating world with the people they feel the safest around and love the most.

This communication dance doesn’t end with the “why” phase of development. As children grow, their communication skills become more refined, and it is often more difficult to hear the “That’s interesting to me. Let’s talk about that together,” underneath the surface. As we look for the invitation into our children’s lives and relate to them at their level of interest, we’ll find countless opportunities to engage with them. This communication dance is not an easy one. Every time we learn the steps, they seem to develop a new set of moves. So, what does “Mom, can I borrow the keys to the car?” really mean? :-)

Last medical review on: February 06, 2008
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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Recent Comments

oh! that was jehian want my attention.
i was busy at work my child was left with my parents. i got vacation leave and noticed my child attitude was change. he always ask me question and he wants me to answer it correctly to remember the name of character he could’nt remember. if i failed to answer he almost cry i was about to worried wht was happening.. even im in bathroom he waits for me to ask his question. thats why i began to research what was happening to hin he is more curious this few days. he is 5 years old.. thnk you for youe message…

The reason kids ask ( why is the sky blue? ) because of there curiosity. and they don’t want to know the reason. they are asking the big WHY question. what’s it all for what’s it all mean.
And the reason all kids ask the question. Why is the sky blue? what’s the biggest they know?
And you should encourage your kids to ask the why questions.

The reason why your child asks why is because they want to connect with you.

When I first discovered this, it was a revelation.

My child just wants to connect with me. Her primary motivation isn’t seeking knowledge. She is looking to connect, to feel loved.

Thank you for sharing. My daughter keeps on asking why and now I know how to answer her why in the best way I can.

Thanks for sharing!

I love the insight here. I completely agree with every point. Thank you for sharing that with everyone. By the way, “Mom, can I borrow the keys to the car?’ can probably be translated into “Mom, do you trust me with that level of responsibility?”

“..children who get spoken too condescendingly by adults love it when you speak to them as though they too were adults, with regards to tone of voice and vocabulary, even if they do not understand all of the words..” –Agnes

Yes. I’ve gotten respect from kids who are generally unsociable by stepping down to kid level like that. It’s weird, but they do open up & it surprises everybody. (by “weird” I mean that it’s kind of alarming that such neglected kids exist.. yet as it goes down the kid is oblivious to everything, even someone remarking “he/she wont talk to you” .. almost like magic)

I found Mr Greene’s post to be monumental in its importance, not only to therapeutic psychology but, in turn, to the betterment of our entire species. It’s the little things that matter most & eventually carve out the personality of humanity. Such as the difference between a warring species and a peaceful one. Child psychology/emotional health is the single most important area of human development, period. It is also, as such, the most devastatingly neglected part of human history. Imagine where humans would be if people like Freud, Jung, Ben Spock and Dr Greene had existed as revered doctors of emotional health centuries/millennia ago. No matter. We still have time to fix ourselves. But time is, indeed running out. (HG Wells)

My 5 year old granddaughter asks “why” especially when it’s time for a consequence or we need her to do something she may not want to do, which makes me furious sometimes. How in the world do I handle it without getting angry?

I was really impressed with your answer on “why kids ask why”
My 4 year old was driving me up the walls with her “whys” and i finally feel like i understand her!

Brilliant. I figured this out with children a long time ago as well. I remembered it from my own childhood. When I asked why is the sky blue, I vividly recall my father saying “The sky is many colours, it just looks blue to our eyes. The Sun’s light causes it to appear blue to our eyes in the day, and at night when the Sun is not there the sky looks dark.” I was maybe four or five years old and I was just stunned, absolutely fascinated, and instead of wanting to know why, I was like “Wow! But how can that be? How does that work?” and marvelled at the sky while he shrugged, saying something to the effect of that it was very complicated and had to do with the way the light moves through the air. His not knowing how to fully answer the question was a reason I found to keep the subject in mind for the rest of my life! Also, I find that the youngest children who get spoken too condescendingly by adults love it when you speak to them as though they too were adults, with regards to tone of voice and vocabulary, even if they do not understand all of the words. They sit absorbing, and find, even muster, their most sophisticated voice in responding. To all who see this: Try speaking to a child without the condescending tone. I also recall what that sounded like when I was a child. My parents did not do it, but others did. As a small child of about 4-6 years old, I always thought there was something wrong with the person speaking to me that way, that they were not quite right in the head! >;)