The “But Why?” Phase


I have to be the only parent in history looking forward to my kid’s “Why?” stage. I imagined a whole universe of learning lying ahead of us. I’d answer questions until I ran out of answers and then we’d look it up together, snuggled up in the light of the computer screen. When we didn’t have time, we’d write them down to investigate later. When I’d ask him what he thought, he’d come up with a brilliant but age-appropriate answer, showing equal parts creativity and insight.

Like any parenting fantasy, it didn’t work out that way.

For one thing, it was a long time coming. I started eying Think Geek’s “But why?” t-shirt two Christmases ago. My mom decorated a “Question Board” for his second birthday.

But instead of asking “Why?” Sprout just asked, “What’s that?” Endlessly. Multiple times in a row about the exact same object. Nonetheless, I did my best to not just name the object, but explain it to his level of interest.

When the why phase finally arrived last week, it turned out to be less straightforward than I expected. I seriously overestimated a three-year-old’s memory and attention span. Good luck having him care about a topic he asked about a few hours before. I also failed to consider his reticence. When he doesn’t know an answer or just doesn’t feel like answering, he insists, “You say it.”

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy answering his “whys” far more than most parents. It’s just not the basking in the glory of “Science” (cue the trumpets) I expected.

Sometimes, the explanation is pretty simple. “Why did we eat it?” “Because we were hungry.” Or a bit more complex, but still straightforward. “Why do we need to wash hands?” “Because we were in the garden and there are little critters that can make us sick in the dirt. We need to wash them off before we eat.”

Sometimes, the explanation is way too complex for even me – someone who writes about astrophysics in my day job – to delve into for a three-year-old. Most of the time I answer these with a one-word answer, followed with, “I’ll explain when you’re older.” “Why is the letter M?” “Linguistics.” “Why do cats have tails?” “Evolution.”

Sometimes, he asks questions that I don’t have adequate information to answer. I often flip these around to ask his opinion. “Why is there a flag on the top of the station?” “I don’t know. What do you think?”

And then there are the questions that stop me cold.

“Why is he being mean?”

He’s asked me this twice in the last week, each time during a movie (Zootopia and Moana). In both cases, I was trying to provide context to a character’s actions. I didn’t expect the follow-up question.

I blinked, opened my mouth, closed it again. I whispered, “I don’t know, honey.”

Later on, I added that sometimes people are mean because they’ve been badly treated (Zootopia) or away from other people for a long time (Moana).

But fundamentally, that’s a question I will never have a good answer to. I can’t explain why someone who made fun of disabled people is our president elect. Or why casual cruelty is so dominant in our society. Or why Sprout himself sometimes thinks it’s funny to hurt his little brother.

Sure, there are explanations. Original sin is a major part of Christian theology. Social science has a lot to say about power dynamics and organizations. But all of the high-minded explainations in the world are too lofty. They don’t provide the concrete answer that my child’s question asks.

While I don’t have an answer, I do have a response. Even if he doesn’t ask that exact question again, I suspect it will arise in many other forms. When it does, I will tell him that no matter why someone is mean, when they are, we push back with kindness, respect, and justice. We turn the other cheek in defiance. We love radically. And that is an answer that will outlast any phase.

If you like the “But why?” phase more than normal like me, you may want to check out my post on How to Encourage Your Child to Explore

11 thoughts on “The “But Why?” Phase

  1. More and more recently, I’ve come to think that the “Why?” questions are usually not actually asking a why question, but are signaling a processing glitch in the young one’s still-cooking brain. It’s not so much that he wants to know more, it’s that he’s having trouble bringing the previous bit of information into his head and holding it there. We had a surprising incident tonight where he asked his mother the same question three times in a row, and she, flustered, challenged him on whether or not he was actually listening. He proceeded to repeat the answer back verbatim. It wasn’t exactly that he wasn’t listening and it wasn’t exactly that he didn’t understand; it was more like the information had gotten sort of stuck on the way in, and he was having trouble holding it still long enough to change it from a random string of words into the state of knowing the answer to the question.

    At least, that’s what I’m guessing happens based on my observation of what happens in my own brain at work when someone explains a situation to me before the coffee’s kicked in.

    • I think it’s a mix. Sometimes, he’s just asking why for the sake of asking why. Other times, it seems like he sincerely wants to know. When it’s not clear, I ask him, “Why what?” If he just stares at me or ignores me, I know it’s the former. If he has a specific “Why….” then I can give a better answer.

  2. I hear you on so much of this. My 3-year-old also asks why a ton. Some of the questions are intriguing, others infuriating. (“Why did you give me peanut butter toast?” “Because that’s what you asked for breakfast 10 seconds ago.”)

    Since she’s been in this phase a while, I have to check myself when I give rote, unthoughtful answers. Like the other day she asked why it rains, and I said something like “Because it’s weather.” Um, no. So later I looked into the water cycle, and the next time we took a walk in the rain, I tried to explain it to her. And I continue to bring it up in context—i.e. in the rain. 😉

    • Thanks! I’m a science writer by profession, so I tend to go the other way, into over-explaining. I have to remember to let my son think of the answer on his own sometimes.

  3. I LOVE THIS. You might be the only parent on the planet who eagerly anticipated the ‘why’ phase. 😉 It’s equal parts humbling to realize how many wonderful questions I just don’t have a neat, easy answer for and exciting to see how my son’s brain works.

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