Why I Hate Why: Part Deux

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Why? Why? Why? Photo from Flickr user Madison Guy, CC.

When I was pregnant with my first child, one of the things I was looking forward to the most about becoming a parent was answering all of my child’s endless questions. I often saw adults get annoyed at their children’ endless throng of whys, and I was not going to be that parent. For as long as my child had a question, gosh darn it, I was going to answer it.

It was the GeekMom post “Why I Hate Why” that made me reconsider my position of this famous three-letter question. Jen Tylbon, a museum employee, explained how “ask better questions” became her official mantra. She explains:

‘Why?’ is a great question, but is there is often a better way to phrase the question. I’ve become alarmingly skilled in the art of giving vague but true answers to kids. Not because I want to toy with them (although that part’s awfully fun) but because I need them to think.

My child is now three years old and I’m knee-deep in whys. To my surprise, I realized it is ever so annoying!

We’re going to grandma’s house. “Why?”
Because she wants to see us and we want to see her. “Why?”
Because we love her. “Why?”

It’s not annoying because I have better things to do than answer her questions. It’s not annoying because I get bored with her questions. I find “why?” so annoying because it’s such a lazy question. Here’s why—pun intended:

It is unspecific and open to interpretation.
Whenever I unconsciously answer a why, I end up later realizing I’m not even answering her intended question. Because a preschooler’s mind works so differently from ours, the logical segue we use to deduce the meaning of a vague question is often far more sophisticated than that of the child.

For example, if I tell my daughter that we’re going to the dentist because she has a cavity and she asks why, I might be tempted to assume she means “why do I have a cavity” and answer something about sugar. In reality, her question might have been “why are we going to the dentist instead of a doctor,” “why do we need to go to the dentist right now,” or “why do you need to fix a cavity?” Heck, that imaginative mile-a-minute scatterbrain might have already forgotten all about the dentist conversation and really wanted to know “why is it Tuesday?” If all she asks is “why?”, you’d be none the wiser. “Why what?” is what I end up replying to her whys most of the time. I don’t answer incomplete questions, period.

She really ought to figure it out herself.
When my daughter gets stuck in an endless string of whys, it often degenerates to her asking nonsensical questions like “why did I pick to eat grapes?” Come on, child, I don’t know why you wanted to eat grapes! Those are things only you can answer. It’s time you stop asking questions and start thinking.

Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be nonsensical questions no one can answer, it could just be simple questions I know she could answer herself. Either way, that’s when I bust out the old “why do you think so-and-so?”

There is such a thing as a stupid question.
I openly admit, though somewhat shamefully, to telling my child “that’s a stupid question” on more than one occasion. Sure, my sense of tact—or lack thereof—won’t win me Mother of the Year. But I’ve heard so many ill-phrased and aimless whys that I have little patience for them anymore. I know there’s a good question inside her, she just needs to think before she talks. (Uh-huh, it runs in the family!) I usually follow up my unfortunate “that’s a stupid question” with “think about what you want to ask and then try again.” Forcing her to take the time to formulate a good question usually seems to do the trick.

How about you? Are you as uncompromising as I am about not accepting lazy three-letter questions? I hope I’m not too harsh on my daughter, but in the end there’s no greater sense of joy than hearing her explore the world in a concise and thoughtful way.

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4 thoughts on “Why I Hate Why: Part Deux

  1. This is great! I’m going through this now with my young three. I also try to ask, “why what? What do you mean?” But when it’s a question of discipline, or any time an explanation is uncalled for, I hear myself answer his “why?” with a “because I said so!” and then I cringe, remembering how I hated hearing that from my own mother! So now i try to say “that’s the rule” or “we’re not going to talk about it anymore.” What do you say at those trying times?

    1. Personally, I absolutely encourage my child to question rules, at home or at school. I told her many times that she has to follow the rules only if they make sense. If she doesn’t understand why the rule is necessary then she should question it. If the teacher/parent/adult can’t find a valid reason for the rule, she can and should ignore it.

      I know it’s frustrating to validate things that are obvious to us, or to have our authority put in question constantly. Ultimately though, I want my child to be well-behaved but not stupid about doing anything an adult tells her to do “because they said so.” There should always be a reason!

  2. I learned the “why do YOU think?” trick and I love it. It makes them think, plus it allows you insight into what they are really asking. It is our job as parents to help them learn how to think for themselves and not just provide answers. If she really doesn’t know and wants an answer I try to “lead her to water” but get her to do most of the thinking on her own.

  3. Funny, I had been thinking a lot about that stage and it seemed to pass without incident.
    Don’t get me wrong, there was a good share of trouble questions, on anatomy, reproduction, and even regarding God (¿What is God? was a great question if you are willing to actually try to answer it)
    I think that the obnoxious Why questions were avoided because I do tend to ask in order to understand the question, and that She knows that if she asks me for something crazy, I’ll likely reply with something very crazy.
    I.e. To the What is God, the reply was on the lines of “Depends on the God, You mean one like Thor, like Jeovah (your grandmother’s), Alah or Cthulu?
    That actually worked as a reply, even though I wanted to comment further.

    And yes, when it is in the lines of “Why do I have to bathe everyday?” (Tropical country here), the answer often goes in the lines of “It’s healthy. Now, get in the water!”
    Not really an answer, but then again, not really a situation that invites analysis.

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