“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”Albert Einstein
My six-year-old daughter is passionate about asking questions. No matter where we go or what we are doing, she needs to ask a string of “why” questions. We can be riding our bikes around the neighborhood block for the 100th time, and she still has questions about what we are seeing. Yesterday, while watching one of her favorite gymnastic movies again, she still had a mix of questions about Maddy, her favorite character.
Most of the time, I’m fairly good at answering her questions, but I’m also guilty of grunting a reply, making something up that’s obviously not true or well thought out, and outright ignoring or asking her to not ask so many questions. It’s tough, right? Kids, on average, ask over 70 questions a day.
Like most anything in life, when I take the time to learn more about a problem or question, I often tap into some hidden reservoir of motivation and end up excited to try out what I learned. In this case, I have a few strategies I want to share with you. I also want us to understand why our kids are asking us questions and how we can best respond. Knowing how parents are part of our kid’s brain development process may give you a few more seconds of patience.
Seriously, parents are not robots. We all have our limits, and how your day is going often determines what your limits are. But the more I learned how asking questions impacts kids’ cognitive development, the more I intentionally responded to my daughter’s questions.
Why do kids ask so many questions?
Questions Are Key to Our Kids’ Cognitive Development
Questions are crucial to our kids’ cognitive development. Let that sink in. From infants to adults, humans go through various stages to move us from the brain we are born with, to the brain we have as adults. When our kids move from preverbal communication to verbal communication, our kids asking us questions sets them up for how well their brains will solve problems as adults.
Gestures and Utterances Before Questions
From the time we are born, our brains are wired to take in information. It begins with infants exploring the new world with their senses. Checking out mom and dad, tasting mashed up carrots, feeling the texture of a stuffed animal, knowing what mom smells like, listening to dad talk, are all infinitely interesting.
At around nine months, infants are ready to move on to utterances or making sounds and gestures to communicate. Soon they are toddlers mimicking the sounds mom and dad make, forming and getting out their first few words, and pointing to a pig in a picture book and saying “oink oink” to our delight. From this stage, it’s just a matter of time before we start hearing the dreaded “why” question.
Why, Why, Why
At around 3 or 4 years old most kids have moved on to the “why” question. They can finally ask us questions. Experts explain that on one level when our kids ask “why?”, they are simply seeking answers to questions. On another level, their brains, really since birth, are hardwired and more fully engaged than any time in their adult life, to take in and absorb information. So, what seemed like “cooooos” and “aaaaaahs” before they could form words are now full-on, verbal, questions that need to be answered now!
When our kids ask us questions, most of the time, it’s not to annoy us or get our attention. They are simply trying to fill in the gaps and build on the knowledge they have. While there are times kids ask us questions for attention, the experts explain that it’s more likely the kids need the information to a problem. And if they don’t get an answer, the answer doesn’t take, or they’re ready to move on, they keep asking questions.
We Are All Driven to Ask Questions
The development of our child’s brain drives them to ask questions. From birth to adolescence, and adolescence to adulthood, our kids’ brains are wired to remember, problem solve, analyze information, and make decisions. Kids aren’t trying to prolong a conversation, bother us, or most the time, get attention, they are trying to get to the bottom of things, to fill in the gaps of their knowledge, or get the information they need to solve a problem.
Their brains are wired to do this from birth to around five or six. There isn’t much of a conscious decision for kids to make when moved to ask their parents a bunch of questions. It’s just what they’re supposed to do. Our kids go from asking, “What is this?” and “Can I have?” as toddlers, to “How does this work?” to “Why can’t I go?” by the preschool years, to problem-solving and critical thinking once they get to school. This is a necessary process that we parents want to help out with as much as possible.
How We Can Help the Process
As we know, our kids are hardwired to observe the world around them from the day they are born. Once our kids become verbal, they will either ask a question when they come across something that is unknown to them, or ignore what they see and not ask a question. This, experts explain, is the difference between being curious and not curious.
When we are curious, we are awarded knowledge, and our brains like that. When kids ask questions, they activate two areas of the brain. The first is the striatum, which is responsible for setting goals and rewards. The second part of the brain is the hippocampus, which helps us convert short term memory into long term memory. Both of these areas of the brain are important when problem-solving, doing schoolwork, setting goals for yourself, and so on. When we ignore what we are seeing or experiencing, there’s no reward. And thus, no reinforcement to being curious.
One study demonstrated that even before they receive the answer, the striatum and hippocampus light up when kids ask a question. Our brains want us to be curious. But, if our kids’ questions are ignored too much, if they don’t have someone to sincerely engage them in this process, their cognitive development slows. Unfortunately, one of the challenges for kids who come from high-risk environments, who don’t have parents or adults to engage with to answer their questions, have more difficulty at school and often can simply not be as curious as students who do.
“It’s no coincidence . . . when student motivation and engagement plummet. They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest: it’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.”“The Creativity Crisis” Newsweek July 10, 2010
Tips for Parents
Here are a few tips to help you respond to your child:
- Respond positively to your child’s questions. Check your body language and tone. Let your kid know you’re happy to answer their questions, and you’re happy they came to you.
- Most any answer is better than no response. If it’s a crazy question, if you don’t know the answer, if it’s something like “Why aren’t apples orange?” make something up or give it your best shot. The point is to reinforce our kids asking us questions, so it lights and strengthens those parts of the brain and helps our kid develop their capacity to problem-solve.
- Ask “why” questions. Our kids don’t always need us to answer the question, but they do need our sincere attention to lead them to the answer. As your kid gets older, try out the “You tell me why?” model. For example, if your kid asks, “Why do we go to the store?” ask a question like, “You tell me why we go to the store?”
- This is a good example I heard to help us expand the complexity of the question. I’ve started to use this with my daughter. If your child asks, “Why is the ball rolling?” Respond with a series of questions: “Is the wind moving it?” “Is someone pushing it” “Is someone pulling it?” “Is the floor slanted?”
- Model being curious yourself. Ask “why” questions. Go through your thought process when your problem solve.
- We also want to encourage “why” questions even when they don’t ask a question. If I’m making scrambled eggs with my daughter, I will ask, “Why do we add butter?” “Why do we add next after we crack the eggs?” “Why does Dad like the pan hot before he adds the eggs?”
Ask Higher Order Questions
To help our kids sharpen their problem-solving skills and develop their curiosity, we can ask the questions. Some experts call this, “Higher Order Thinking,” which simply means we are engaging all the tools our kids will need to problem-solve: understand the information they are taking in, infer additional information, categorize the information, synthesize what they are learning with what they already know, evaluate the usefulness or the validity of the information, and last apply the knowledge to solve a problem or find a solution.
While one-word answers to questions can be used to check comprehension, we also want to strengthen our kids’ problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Here are a few examples of Higher Order Thinking:
Reading a book together.
- Why do you think she ran away from school?
- Have you ever felt like running away from school?
- What do you think will happen when she gets home?
Visiting a new place
- Does this zoo remind you of any other zoos or places we’ve visited?
- What was your favorite animal? What do you like about that animal?
- Which animal do you feel like when you’re angry? Sad? Happy?
When making a decision
- What is your most and least favorite activity to do today: going swimming, going to the movies, or going for a hike?
- What do you like about going for a hike?
- Can you explain to me why you want to go to that movie?
- Why did you choose to go for a hike over going to a movie or going swimming?
When Our Kids Ask the Tough Questions
Our six-year-old daughter has a lot of questions about death. These questions come and go. I get the sense she asks us questions, processes our answers, and returns for more information to fill her “knowledge gaps,” as the experts say. While advice and ideas to help answer difficult questions will have to be a different blog, I did want to share some tips I’ve come across that have helped me stay present and answer my daughter’s questions as best I can:
- First, make sure you understand what the question is. We don’t need to be in a hurry for an answer, take your time, and clarify precisely what the question is. We don’t want to overload our kids with more information than they or asking for, which is often about as much as they can process at any one time. For example, my daughter has asked me, “Dad, when will you die?” This is a tough question, one that we’ve gone over a few times. When I responded, “I’m not sure, why are you asking?” She wanted to know how old Granddad, my dad’s age, to see how many years she has left with me. Heavy, I know. I explained my dad is 72 years old. Her eyes got big, said something like “Wow, that’s old!” and for a while, that’s all she wanted to know.
- Second, don’t push your kids when delivering heavy news or answering a tough question. Kids take in and process information differently than we do. They go at their own pace. While my answer that Granddad is 72 years old satisfied her, within a few days, she had another question about dying. Kids will process a bit of information then come back to fill in their knowledge gaps.
- Third, we don’t have to have an immediate answer. Tough questions are just that, tough. Sometimes we need time to think through their question to come up with a quality response. Telling your kids, “I don’t know, let me think about it,” or “Let’s get online and search google together,” are perfectly ok.
- Fourth, let your child know you’re glad they are asking you this question. They are safe and loved. When it comes to our daughter’s questions about death, she understandably gets upset with the thought of one of us, not being with her. When none of my answers or stories are helping, I’m left with pulling her into my arms, rubbing her back, and letting her know it’s a long way away, and right now, we are all safe and together.
- Fifth, you don’t have all the answers, and it’s ok to show your emotions. Just a few days ago, the topic of death came up again. I realized as I consoled her that I also thought a lot about death when I was her age. My dad didn’t take great care of himself. So I shared this with her, that like her, I also thought about death as a kid her age. She then asked me about what I did. At this point, I had an excellent opportunity to explain my own, age-appropriate, thoughts about death. And hopefully, let her know she’s not alone. I have an English Professor, who became my mentor and passed away a few years ago. I shared his passing with my daughter, who has seen him and me in pictures, and I’ve told her a few stories about him. I explained to my daughter, though he has died, he is still in my heart, and I talk to him whenever I need to. Sharing this about my mentor and how I stay connected with him was enough information she needed. Though I know full well, she will likely have more questions down the road. I’m sure she has more knowledge gaps to fill.
When it comes to answering our kids’ questions, for the millionth time, it’s near impossible to answer each of our kid’s questions enthusiastically. But we do want to ensure our kids know that they can come to us with their problems. Kids who are left alone, whose parents don’t engage their kids enough, suffer emotionally and developmentally. Answering questions, strengthening our child’s curiosity, providing opportunities to develop their critical thinking, and modeling the curious, critical thinker you want them to be, are essential. Remember, we don’t have to have all the answers, sometimes a silly reply works, but what we can do is let them know they are safe and loved, always.