Why the incessant WHY? Also, why (or how?) WHY? is not the same as HOW?

Amie and the doctor’s glasses (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Amie started asking “Why?” a couple of weeks ago and hasn’t stopped. Some of her why-s are genuine questions, asked out of curiosity, but many (more, I suspect) are not. It’s fascinating and annoying and often a challenge. I find myself in conversations like these:

  • Amie, please don’t make that mess.
  • Why?
  • Why do you think?
  • (Silence. Reads her book. Obviously wasn’t a genuine question. Let’s pursue:)
  • Hmmmmm? Why do you think? Amie? Why do you think?

Or:

  • Mama, why do you need a spoon?
  • Why do think?
  • I don’t know.
  • Yes, you do. Why do you think I need a spoon?
  • To stir your tea?
  • Yes! See, so you knew why all along. So there was no need for you to ask why at all!

My response depends on my estimation of her reason for asking. These are many, and not readily discernible!

  1. She wants to know: e.g., “Why is it dark?”
  2. She’s curious about the wider topic: “Why is X crying?”
  3. She’s not really interested, she’s just asking for the sake of talking/pronouncing words/uttering sounds, like singing
  4. It’s a game, she’s playing with language and that most intriguing and versatile of words (why yes: “why”)
  5. It’s a reflex, like in the examples above (mostly when she just asks “why?”, without elaborating the full question)
  6. She just wants to get attention and the annoying aspect is unintentional
  7. She wants to get attention by being annoying
  8. She just wants to annoy

Can you think of other reasons? I’m sure there’s many more, just like there are many possible responses:

  1. “Because our part of the earth is slowly turning away from the sun and so the sun can’t shine on our place anymore and it gets dark. Then it’s night. But tomorrow morning our place will be turning back to the sun and so it will become light again. Then it will be day again. Here, wait, lemme me look it up in this en-cy-clow-pee-dia.”
  2. “Why do you think?” as a conversation starter: “Because she banged her knee? Remember that day when I got that booboo?”
  3. “Is that a real why? Do you really want to know?”
  4. “Why do you think?” as a Ha! Gotcha back! But this doesn’t work very long (“No, Mama, what do you think?”)
  5. “Why what?” “I don’t understand your question, please eee-la-bo-raate“. This might make her understand that the why-question must be respected and asked in earnest.
  6. “Why are you asking? Is it because you need a hug? A kiss? A gobble?”
  7. “Because that’s how they made it.” Also not a why?-stopper for long (and rightly so?)”
  8. “Because I said so!” This often deserves a new why in return.
  9. “Because Mama knows best!” This is sometimes legitimate, e.g., to “Why should I hold you hand on the busy street?”
  10. “That’s a really stupid question!”: this in my view is a no-no. She might think she is stupid for asking it! A stupid way to go, really.
  11. “That’s enough questions for now” or “I’m all out of answers”.
  12. “Mama can’t answer anymore, sweetie, I’ve got a headache.” If followed by a genuine “Why?”, answer truthfully. If not, go to next alternative:
  13. Silence (turn up the radio volume)

There must be a lesson in this… I guess it’s live with it, make the best of it, and make sure you don’t discourage the real why questions.

But then there’s also this:

Listen, I’m a philosopher (I alway say: “student of philosophy”) by training, and what really, really bugs me about this incessant why? is that often it is the wrong question. What Amie wants to know is not why?, but how?!

It’s the difference between causes and reasons, people!

  • How does it work? = what causes this to happen? “The lever pushes the wheel. That’s how it turns.” (Domain of science and technology)
  • Why does it work? = what motivates something or someone, what is the purpose? “The turning wheel makes the toy cars go round. That why it turns.” (Domain of morality and psychology)

Now how am I going to explain that one to a two-year-old? I guess I could start with:

“Why? Oh, you mean how come? Well…”

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4 Comments

  1. Why has turned into “what happens if” with my son and it is almost worse than the whys when you are not in the mood! I have read that the why series of questions if often not about the questions and responses but about your relationship with the child – they are interested in how far they can push you, how much you will help them, how patient you are etc. Reading that made me much more interested in answering patiently even when onto the 26th why in a row – esp in the car!! Good luck!!

  2. Anika isn’t into the ‘why’ so much as yet, but she is incessant in the car with, ‘What Atta(what she calls herself) doing?” and “Mama tell (s)tory.” Over and over till there is an appropriate response. We share a car so I drop my huz off to work thrice a week. I sit in the back seat with her early in the morning and it starts without coffee. Sometimes the stories are unbelievable and nonsensical, but she loves them!

  3. “What” was Amie’s first wh-word. She would point and say “what”. Her pointing skills weren’t very advanced, so I’d have to ask “What where?” “That!” she’d say. “Describe it to me…”

    “What happens if…” is actually a really good replacement for “why” (or actually, “how”!). I’ll try to reframe Amie’s whys into that, see what happens if…

  4. I think I found a remedy, an occasional distraction. Amie is a notorious finisher-of-sentences. I’m very good at running out of steam by the end of my sentences, especially when they have to do with everyday life things. She never misses.

    – “Whatcha doing Mama?”
    – “I’m taking the cups plates form the dishwasher and putting them into the—”
    – “—cupboard.”

    BINGO!

    She hasn’t followed that up with a “why?” yet.

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