How to Respond to ‘Why? Why? Why?’ Questions

Dear Kid Whisperer,

My 3-year-old is driving me crazy. I don’t really know if you can call this a “behavioral problem.” He is doing something that I know is typical, but knowing this hasn’t saved me from losing my mind. He keeps asking me “Why?” about every single little thing that happens! “Why are you doing that?” “Why? Why? Why?” I notice that he’s not even listening to my answer. Do I ignore him? Do I run away? What do I do? — Phil, Omaha, Neb.

Phil,

I’m right there with you on this one. My wife and I are going through this with our 2-year-old right now. Let’s call her the Evildoer. The Evildoer acts like an insane reporter on speed. She asks questions constantly, and, like your child, sometimes doesn’t even care about the answer. I have your solution.

But before we use our new tactic we need to be able to distinguish between two kinds of questions that our kids can ask. One kind of question is information-seeking (I.S.). These are the questions that you don’t mind answering because your child legitimately is asking you help him make sense of the world. Good signs that a child is asking an I.S. question is that it is thoughtful on some level and that they listen to the answer and perhaps ask a follow-up I.S. question. What to do with an I.S. question is simple: Answer it.

Children seek to see what they can control. This is healthy, but so is teaching kids exactly what they should and shouldn’t be in control of. One way a kid can get control is to have your attention whenever they want it. This includes trying to lock you into an argument with questions. Showing them that they are not in charge of this is an important limit to set.

This leads us to attention-seeking (A.S.) questions. While I.S. questions can be exhausting to answer, A.S. questions are the ones that really drive you nuts. These are the mindless, staring off into space “Why? Why? Why?” questions.

So here are two ways to manage the A.S. questions so that you can keep your stress level low and make your kid less likely to ask these questions. I did both of these today. Let’s call the first tactic “Question Ricochet” and the second “The Question Stomper.”

The Evildoer: Why we eating wunch now?

The Kid Whisperer: Why do you think?

The Evildoer: Because it’s wunch time.

The Kid Whisperer: Yep.

Or …

The Evildoer: Why we have to get ready?

Kid Whisperer: You’ll see.

The Evildoer: Why?

Kid Whisperer: You’ll see.

… and repeat as necessary.

The key is to answer all A.S. questions with exactly the same words in exactly the same boring way. This will cause your kid to be less interested in trying to lead you around on a leash using questions.

Warning: This will make the behavior worse in the short term as your kid is going to attempt to regain control by asking A.S. questions louder and more frequently. Weather the storm and you will have a less stressful relationship with your son when the storm clears. Good luck experimenting with this new strategy.