“Mum! Why is broccoli good for me?”
“But why do I need vitamins and iron?”
“What is vitamin anyway?”
“Do you need it?”
“But what if I don’t want it?”
“Can I get my vitamins from other foods?”
“Can I have my vitamins once a month?”
“My friend at school doesn’t have his vitamins and he’s OK. Maybe you should ask him about it?”
“No mum! He’s still alive and he doesn’t take food with vitamins and he’s still not dead yet. Can you come to class early tomorrow? I’ll show you! He’s really still alive!”
This is very typical of a preschooler who asks two dozen questions every five minutes. Most parents will think they are just arguing with them and they are just asking questions to get attention. Some might think they are doing it to stall so they can wriggle out of something they don’t want to do or they are just trying to annoy the heck out of them.
These are very logical assumptions, especially when coming from parents who are not well versed in applied child developmental psychology because… we tend to use our reasoning for children’s behaviors based on our understanding of adult behaviors.
But what if I told you that young children are naturally inquisitive because, during the first six years of their lives, they are going through a formative period where they form most of their impressions of how the world works around them? What if I told you that asking questions is the way they process what they have learned from their encounter with things around them? And what if I told you that asking questions is a manifestation of children’s creativity?
Here are a few things that happen when children ask questions…
1. They are trying to understand and internalize something so what they actually need is scaffolding (not answers)
2. They are trying to grow their vocabulary and comprehension skills (so use smaller words)
3. They are learning to organize ideas and thoughts by grouping information so that it’s easier to remember them
4. They are developing their investigative skills (this is a super handy skill to have in order to be resourceful)
5. They are learning how to grow their communication skills (it’s not just about talking and listening but more so about understanding what the other party is trying to say)
But why do they seem to be asking THE SAME QUESTIONS over and over again? Well, here’s why…
- They don’t really understand what you are saying – remember, they have limited vocabulary and comprehension skills and particularly if your explanation is based on something that they have not seen or come in contact with yet, it would be even harder
- They don’t yet have the capability to engage in rather abstract concepts so this might make it harder for them to figure out what you are trying to say (e.g. the concept of time, character traits like being responsible or trustworthy, the concept of sharing or taking turns)
- Repetition allows them to gain some familiarity of the topic and though they may not be able to understand it fully, they often can repeat the answers that they hear the most (and this is why I like asking them questions as a means of trying to figure out how much of what they know is internalized and how much of it is memorized and repeated)
As far as I am concerned, I see children’s questions as teachable moments (don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we have to teach them stuff they ask about but rather to teach them how to ask good questions, to show them that being inquisitive and curious is a good trait, to help them find ways to internalize things they are trying to figure out, to help them discover their own learning style etc.) and as opportunities to connect with them as co-learners rather than as a teacher and student.
A child’s questions spark off a call to investigate things together, to generate more questions, assumptions, and hypotheses (big words here but simple concepts really) and to find new ways of learning new things.
So we should really start valuing children’s questions and that they are actually asking questions…
“We should be teaching children how to think rather than what to think” (attach poster here)
So the next time your child asks you a question, here’s what you can do…
1. Start from known to unknown
When attempting to explain something, start from something they know and proceed to something they don’t know so that it will be easier for them to draw similarities and differences. For example, if your child asks you what camouflage is because he heard you say it, you can give him an example of a caterpillar that both of you observed a week ago where the caterpillar was difficult to spot because he was green and he blended in well with the leaves that were also green. That way, you are using something he is familiar with to explain something that is new to him.
2. Use simple words and short sentences
Don’t do what dictionaries do. I remember how I hated looking up words in the dictionary when I was in school… in a desperate attempt to find the meaning of a word, only to be slapped with a few more foreign words in the description of the word I was initially looking for. And when I looked up one of the foreign words they used in the description, it drew out more unfamiliar words… and that was when I totally gave up on using a dictionary! This is the last thing you want to do when trying to explain something to a young child. Try to use simple and familiar words and refrain from stringing together long sentences or you will lose them and put them off asking questions in the future (like what I did with my best pal, the dictionary).
3. Break down processes and sequences into smaller bits
If you are trying to explain a process or a sequence of events or actions, it will help to shorten it up so that it’s more manageable for the child. This applies to seemingly simple things like teaching a child about the right way to wash his hands. Looks easy enough, but many parents give long instructions with a lot of ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ and they also randomly throw in explanations while in the middle of explaining the sequence. This cannot be more frustrating and is why children can’t follow and why they keep asking the same questions over and over again.
4. Give lots of examples
I was explaining to my 3-6-year-old students about how we need to share. First, you need to understand that ‘share’ is a huge abstract concept, meaning you can’t touch it or smell it or see it… you can’t possibly explain it in a concrete way. And as such, the best way would be to give examples of children who are sharing and children who are not sharing. I like using storybooks to elaborate on this concept and we role play and we use songs and puppets to help them internalize this concept.
5. Ask questions to model what good questions look like
It’s a skill to learn to ask good questions… only by asking the right question do we get the answers we are looking for… and like any other skill, children need to learn this too. For this, we can start with the why, what, how, when, who questions. Most times when children ask questions, parents feel the need to answer them, probably because we feel like we are the ‘teacher’ and we need to have all the answers. But here’s the thing, if we are too busy answering questions, how do we model asking questions? So here’s what I like to do, I like asking questions when children ask questions so that I can get them to ask more questions in order to arouse their curiosity even further. Here’s a good example:
Son: Mum, why do we have blood moons? I saw it in a book just now. It’s like our moon but red.
Me: Well, I’m more curious to know where our regular moon went when the blood moon is out?
Son: Oh no! I’ve never thought about that! I wonder if they both come out together?
Me: Do you think they did rock, scissors, paper to see who gets a turn to come out?
6. Investigate questions together (be excited about it, write the questions down)
So if I just asked questions when they asked questions, then who’s going to give us the answers? Nope! That’s the wrong question! The right question is, ‘If we just asked questions, how do we find the answers?’ It’s simple… you become the co-learner and both of you investigate the answers together. Look up books, pull out YouTube for documentaries on that topic, ask other people (we visited a vet once just to ask him if rabbits go to heaven). We don’t always have to have the answers, but we can always have lots of questions! And that’s a good thing!
7. If they ask the same questions twice, try explaining it to them differently rather than repeating our response.
When I was doing my master’s programme, I often asked my professors if they could ‘explain it differently’ when I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to explain. This is much better than saying that ‘I don’t understand’ (cause it makes me look intellectually challenged 🙂 and it’s definitely better than telling them to ‘repeat it’ because they are just going to repeat exactly what they just said… no help there since I already heard them the first time and I doubt hearing the same confusing thing twice is going to increase my level of understanding…duh!) So, if your child asks you the same questions twice or if they say ‘why’ twice in a row, it means you don’t need to repeat what you said because she doesn’t understand it anyway. You are better off finding a different way to explain it to her. Use different words, shorter sentences, give examples, or start from known to unknown.
8. Use visual cues as much as possible because children learn from doing
It’s true, I didn’t make this up. Child development psychologist Jean Piaget theorized that young children learn from hands-on experience because they are incapable of abstract thinking at a young age (he called it the Pre-operational stage of his cognitive developmental theory). As such, if you explain stuff with pictures or videos or better yet, let them experience it themselves, then their level of understanding will be a lot higher. I had to explain condensation and precipitation in class using our spare fish tank and I also had to ‘erupt’ a volcano by building one with clay and pouring a mixture of vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and red food coloring into my volcano model. It also helps to do demonstrations (this is very Montessori) so if your child asks about the proper way to wash hands, instead of verbally explaining it to him, you could take him to the bathroom and do a demonstration instead.
I hope these tips will suffice in helping you understand children’s inquisitive natures differently and will give you some ideas on how to support their growth and learning process. If you still struggle to deal with their questions despite using the suggestions I’ve provided here, feel free to share them in the comments section below so that we can problem solve together 🙂