Why Do Children Ask, 'Why?'

Children's innate curiosity plays a big part in their "why" questions. Their curiosity about the world around them helps to build concepts, skills, vocabulary, and understanding of the unknown. And you can help channel their curiosity and need to know why so that you help foster learning in a positive way.
02/19/2016 05:08 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2017

"Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect." --Samuel Johnson

Have you ever wondered why children ask "why" so often?

Even as adults, we question the "why" of many things not in our control. For children, "why" questions help them make sense of the world around them that they are just beginning to learn about. These "why" questions also help spur and accelerate learning. Our adult responses are crucial and pivotal. So, the bigger question is: What is your response to the "why" questions?

Children's innate curiosity plays a big part in their "why" questions. Their curiosity about the world around them helps to build concepts, skills, vocabulary, and understanding of the unknown. And you can help channel their curiosity and need to know why so that you help foster learning in a positive way.

So, how do we support young children's need to know?

When your young child is asking a "why" question and you know that he or she needs to know and needs to know RIGHT NOW, my advice is simple: you should try to provide an immediate, direct answer that's either short or detailed, depending on what you know and what your child can understand.

Sometimes a simple, informational answer is all that is needed in the moment. For example, if your child asks, "Why does that cat have fur?" Your response can be brief and factual: "The cat has fur to keep warm. Almost all cats have fur."

This is a fully sufficient answer that will help your child learn about the world.

But, if you know a little more about the subject and your child has a deeper level of interest and understanding, honor your child's interest and try to offer a more detailed response, such as, "The cat has fur to keep warm. He is a member of the cat family and almost all cats have fur. Cats are mammals, just like we are, and mammals have either hair or fur. We have hair; cats have fur." You could then make it a project to look up more information or take informational books out of the library about cats and/or other furry animals with your child.

It can also deepen your child's thinking if you turn the "why" question around so your child has to think about it and to come up with his or her own answer.

For example, your first response to your child's "why" question could be, "Why do YOU think he has fur?" Then let your child respond with an original answer.

A second, higher-order question back to your child could be, "Why do you think many animals have fur? And why do you think we don't?" Again, let your child respond with an original answer.

Getting children to think about and answer their own "why" questions at this age is important because teachers are using "why" questions in every subject taught at school. Children are being asked questions that educators call "higher-order" questions. They are asked to read, think about what they read, and explain why they think certain things happen in the story.

Being able to answer "why" questions is also crucial because older children and adults encounter why questions throughout their daily lives. And in our increasingly technological and global world, our children will be asked to solve problems that will require them to think for themselves and come up with their own answers.

Our children's first experiences in asking and answering "why" questions in their quest to understand the world they live in are the building blocks of deep thinking and will help prepare them for the future.

What can we do at home to foster children's questioning abilities and support their learning? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Encourage "why" questions. Do this by responding in a supportive manner with an informative answer or another "why" question (e.g., "Why does it rain?" 1. "That's a great question. It rains because the clouds have moisture in them and when they get full, it rains." 2. "That's a great question. Why do you think it rains?").
  • Ask lots of "why" questions yourself (e.g., "Why do you think this soup I'm cooking needs water?") to show your child that learning is a lifelong skill.
  • Read books to your child that contain many questions (e.g., Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman, or National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of Why).
  • Post a page (e.g., "My List of Why Questions") on the refrigerator or in your child's room with the answers to "why" questions he has asked.
  • Learn about higher-order questions and why they are important to children's learning.
  • Talk to your child's teacher about the "why" questions they are talking about at school.

Rebecca A. Palacios, Ph.D., is a Senior Curriculum Advisor for Age of Learning, Inc., the company that produces the ABCmouse.com website and ABCmouse mobile apps.