Why questions are tough questions for young children to answer because they require examination of less-than-obvious origins to wishes, desires, or feelings. Three- or four-year-olds will usually answer why questions in a concrete manner. “Why did you throw your pizza on the floor?” will often be met with “Because I wanted to!”
Such a concrete response does not always indicate that your child is just being stubborn or combative. More likely, your child is answering in the best way that he or she can. Your child is new to the idea of abstract thinking. In fact, it may be months before he or she can consider behaviors and contemplate ideas long enough to explain the underlying reasons for his or her actions: “Because I prefer cheese pizza, not pepperoni, and you should know that!”
If your child is not ready for a why question, modify your query. For example, “What do you want to do in the yard?” is an easier question for a child to answer than “Why do you want to go out in the yard?” If your toddler has trouble with what questions, offer choices instead. “Do you want to play on the swing or the slide?” If choices are too hard for your child, make the choices playful: “Do you want to play on the swing or look for camels?” This will probably trigger giggles, and after you get an answer, you can rephrase your response in a way that brings why to mind: “Oh, so you want to swing. That’s why you want to go out in the yard.”
The combining of ideas and concepts and building off of personal ideas is an indication that your child’s thinking is growing increasingly complex. He or she will be ready to enjoy a debate before you know it!
More to consider: What is needed to answer why . . .
To answer why questions, your child will need to have a sense of an independent self, an awareness that he or she has an inner desire or want, and an idea for some action that will satisfy the desire in the near future.