Why I Hate Why: Part Deux

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.

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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.

Ariane is a programmer married to another programmer. Together they have two little girls who don't stand a chance against their nerdy lineage. Ariane can also be found writing about STEM travel at Geekling's Guide to the Galaxy.