Thursday, April 5, 2007

Why, why, oh why

Tommy first asked the question "why" 6 weeks before his 3rd birthday. He'd acquired "what?" and "where?" and "when?" –, and I knew "why" was "due", as it's a "3 year old" kind of question. When he first uttered "why?" I looked at the calendar and thought "Yep, coming up on three, there it is." The first few whys were a thrill. He's got the idea! He's asking why!

But, once why arrived, it never stopped. The summer he was 3, Tommy asked why after nearly every statement of mine. Driving home from school became an exercise in not just 20 questions, but 1000 questions, most of them "why?"

T: What they building?
M: It looks like they're building new houses.
T: Why?
M: Well, because people need a place to live.
T: Why people need a place to live?
M: They need a place to get out of the rain, or the sun or the cold, and to keep their stuff.
T: Why?
M: Because it's not very fun to get wet or cold.
T: Why?
M: Because it's not.
T: Why?

Many children ask why, and Tommy certainly wasn't the first. But, the sheer volume of whys was astounding. Family commented on it, neighbors commented on it, store clerks commented on it. Even his preschool teachers commented on how often he asked why. If preschool teachers are commenting, you know he's asking why a lot! Literally every statement was responded to with why? often to the puzzlement of the adult.

T: What's that?
M: That's the river.
T: Why?
M: Why what?
T: What that's the river?
M: Umm... it's not the land, it's water.

Particularly disturbing to me where why queries to locations (Portland is in Oregon. Why?), labels for things (that's a giraffe. Why?). How can you answer why something is located somewhere or why something is called something?

M: That's called a giraffe.
T: Why?
M: Why what?
T: Why that's a giraffe?
M: _____________________ (Because that's the name/because it's got a long neck/arbitrary convention.)

Sometimes why was simply a device to keep the conversation rolling. But often, he really did want to know. If I responded "Why do you think?" He would shoot back "I don't know. Why?"
"You tell me." was met with "No, you tell me!" Apparently, he needed to hear the answers over and over and over again in order to internalize it.

And why has continued well beyond age 3. It's still going strong to this day - age 5 ½ and counting. We get dozens of whys every day. So many that sometimes I answer why without it being asked, which leads to a conversation of the absurd:

T: Why are we going to the store?
M: To pick up a prescription for Maria.
T: Oh.
M; Because she's got a rash and the lotion will help it.
T: I didn't ask why! (very indignant!)
M: Oh, sorry, I thought you did because you ask why so often.
T: Why?
M: Why do you ask why so often?

Why is such a constant presence in our house that Maria picked up why a full year earlier than Tommy. So, now I'm getting it from both sides - double doses of why every day.

So, why why? What's so important about why that a child will repeat it over and over and over again. It keeps the conversation going - in fact, it may be a child's earliest device to send the conversation back at the parent. Early conversations with children (at least in US American households) often look like mini-interrogations, with the parent asking, the child responding and the conversation lurching to a halt any time the child quits answering or the parent quits asking. Why changes that dynamic. It elicits a response from the parent - a long and complicated response.

It's also been argued (Snow, 2001) that why questions can often be built from the utterances the parent has just given: Why that's called a giraffe? Can be uttered after a parent says "That's a giraffe" – just tack why on to the front and you've got new utterance, one that's guaranteed to get a response from the parent. So, it's possible that why is a good step into complex syntax – it builds off what the parent says and it keeps the conversation going and leads to more complex answers.

But why does more than this too. Why opens up a new world of information to a curious child. It allows them to promote their conversational agenda, rather than simply responding to the parents. Through why questions, parents get a glimpse of what their children are interested in. What intrigues my child? What fascinates him?

For me as a parent, it's also a chance to reflect on how much of the knowledge that I use every day is knowledge that I take for granted. My children's questions have made me think about many things that I don't usually question. Why do busses stop at bus stops? Why do people live in houses? Why do we need our seatbelts on? Why is my tea hot? Do fire trucks turn their lights on first or their sirens on first when they leave the station, and why? Why is red the signal for stop? Why not purple or orange or even green? Why does it rain?

And even more, when my answer to "Why does it rain?" is "Because the clouds have water in them." the responding "Why do clouds have rain in them?" makes me think more deeply about my knowledge and how to explain whole cycles of things. "Because the clouds have water in them" isn't really very explanatory, and yet that's the type of answer we're likely to give. What my children really want is to know how the water got there, how it stays up there, what makes it come down and why it's coming down in this place at this moment. It's enough to make a scientist out of everyone!

1 comment:

steph said...

I've been looking for a blog or website like this for two years--I am utterly fascinated by my childrens' acquisition of language! My younger daughter (4 months) is doing the conversational cooing you were talking about. When she starts using words, we're in for it!

The just-turned-2 year old started asking "What" questions this week (first real questions besides "that" without the question mark when she was furiously into knowing the name of everything)..."What is this?" has appeared several times in the past few days (asking about stray objects on the floor, not the names of things. Her vocabulary is huge, so she knows what most objects are if she's encountered them before.)

We had an impromptu geography lesson today (she found a couple of pieces of material I had stashed away with maps of the world and the US on them and was curious) and she kept asking "How? How?" A lightbulb went off when I realized she meant "where", so I taught it to her along with the state we live in and the ones her family members live in. Don't know if she got it, but it was fun anyway.

I don't think we have long until we hear the "why" questions, but as exciting as this is, I don't feel ready for them. I remember asking tons of them at around age 5 and also asking my dad "Does it bother you when I ask so many questions?" He, of course, said "no." I hope I have the fortitude to deal with the deluge!

Great blog! If you have any recommended reading, I am interested in anything related to how young children learn language. I'm not trying to push my kids, it's just been fun to watch the metamorphosis and dig into the "why" of it all. Thanks!