How do you answer the unanswerable? It would certainly be handy to know for when your toddler starts asking those challenging ‘Why…?’ questions

‘Why don’t daddies have boobs?’

‘What is colour made of?’

 ‘Why don’t cats cry?’

These are amongst some of the more mind-boggling questions young children have asked their  bewildered parents. But what is it that drives kids to think of such things in the first place?

From around the age of three – sometimes earlier – your toddler will begin to see the world through new eyes: it’s a wonderful age of discovery, and a time when children begin to make the connection between cause and effect. It’s also a nail-biting time for parents who may feel ill equipped to find answers, and who may come to dread any question that begins with ‘Why?’.

Really we should be privately celebrating the onset of this barrage of tricky questions, as it heralds a sudden upsurge in your child’s intellectual development. The younger child will simply accept that things are the way they are; the child with a greater degree of mental maturity will want to know why.

‘When children are very young, they are necessarily very dependent on their Mums – or whoever their main carers may be – but at around two or three, something called “individuation” occurs, when they begin to become aware of themselves as individuals, and to see the gap between how the world is and how they want it to be,’ says child educational psychologist Simon Cusworth.

‘The “Why?” questions start coming thick and fast as a child acquires more and more language and comprehension, and as well a stemming from curiosity, some of the questions will be challenges to your authority – why should he get in the bath right now? Why can’t he have chocolate before lunch? – and so on.’

One important thing to acknowledge in the case of curiosity is that you don’t have all the answers: this tells your child that you are not infallible – that no one person can be a fount of all knowledge.

Children can find it enormously reassuring and affirming to know that parents don’t know everything: it makes it OK for them to be lacking in knowledge themselves, and may ease feelings of inadequacy.

It also gives you the opportunity to encourage your child to do some basic research, and to exercise her inquisitive mind – and in helping her to find things out for herself, you could also diffuse a potentially tense situation. Does the following scenario ring any bells with you?

Inquisitive Child: ‘Why do my teeth wobble?’
Mum: ‘Because they need to come out.’
IC:‘Why?’
Mum: ‘To make room for new ones.’
IC: ‘What’s wrong with the old ones?’
Mum: ‘They’re not big enough for when you’re grown up.’
IC: ‘Why?’
Mum (getting a bit rattled): ‘Because your mouth will be bigger.’
IC: ‘Why don’t I just get more teeth the same?’
Mum (really frustrated now): ‘Oh, go and ask Daddy!’

An inquisitive toddler can and will go on and on like a broken record – and won’t be easily put off once she’s on a roll! One way to break the cycle of ‘Why, why, why’ is to answer as fully as you can, but then distract your child as the questions keep coming. You could:

  • Take her off to look up all about teeth on the internet or in a book
  • Look in her baby book to see when her first teeth came through or when the first one was lost
  • Find out more information about teeth generally
  • Use her curiosity as a lever to make a dental appointment for a check-up.

Just taking a few minutes out to help satisfy her curiosity may well be all she needs.

Children do tend, however, to ask these tricky questions at just the wrong times: you may find yourself midway through a complicated recipe or getting frazzled because you can’t find one of your child’s shoes and you’re running late. In this case, your child may simply be seeking your one-to-one attention or even just seeing how far she can push you before you lose your temper – and this is especially true of the challenges to authority.

‘I have always taught my own children that no one can always have their own way,’ says Simon Cusworth. ‘Sometimes we need to do what we need to do and not what we want to do, and that’s how life continues to run smoothly.’

Even if your toddler is merely being curious, you can’t always stop what you’re doing and give in to her demands, but you can reassure her that you’ll have a discussion just as soon as you have finished what you’re doing, and honour your word.

There are, of course, some questions to which there are no known answers. It may come as a surprise to your child to find this out, but she may also find it encouraging to think that there is a limit to how much knowledge she will be expected to acquire in her lifetime.

‘It’s not wrong to say to a child sometimes: “Rocks and hard and water is wet, and that’s just the way it is”,’ says Simon Cusworth.

Other questions may have no definite answer, but could be open to interpretation, and these can often be explored together. If, for example, your child asks you what her mind looks like, instead of dismissing the subject, you could say something like: ‘I’m not sure.

What do you think it looks like?’. In this way, your child’s self-esteem can be boosted by the knowledge that she has hit upon something that has made you wonder – and you may be surprised by a very imaginative answer.

Research resources

It’s a great idea to have some resources close to hand, so that the next time she comes out with a mind-bending question, you’ll be able to help her to discover an answer that will satisfy her curiosity – for now… Make available:

  • A first encyclopaedia
  • A variety of nature books, including at least one on the human body, one on wildlife, one on plants and trees, and so on
  • The internet (don’t forget to use parental controls once she is capable of ‘surfing’ herself)
  • A local library membership. Do instil in your child a sense of the value of books as well as computer technology. Browsing in a library should be one of the great pleasures of childhood – and you won’t accumulate loads of books she’ll grow out of!