That pesky question “why?”

I had completely forgotten about that stage of toddlerhood when “why?” becomes the most important question.

It goes something like this:

Me: “Leila, look at that bird in the tree”

Leila: “Why is the bird in the tree?”

Me: “Maybe she’s looking for something to eat.”

Leila: “Why?”

Me: “Maybe because she’s hungry.”

Leila: “Why?”

Me: “Because she hasn’t eaten for a while.”

Leila: “Why?”

And so on into infinity.

I often wonder if the word “why” means the same thing to her as it means to adults. If you Google “why do toddlers ask why?” you’ll find some answers. But mostly you’ll find advice about how to handle the frustration of constantly being asked questions you can’t always find answers for. The site I found most informative suggests that toddlers aren’t as interested in cause and effect as we are. Rather, they want to know more about a subject and have discovered the power of that little word to keep an adult talking about it. They’re also learning about and practicing conversational give and take.

Maybe all of this is fueled by wonder – that sense of looking around outside of oneself, marveling at what’s there, and wanting to know more about it.

Leila looking upOur daughter, Kate, when pushed to the limits of her knowledge, often tells Leila, “I don’t know. We’ll have to look it up.” She began to notice that whenever she asked Leila a question she didn’t know the answer to Leila would tilt her head back and examine the ceiling. This puzzled her immensely until the day she asked Leila if her brother had taken a nap while the nanny was there. Leila said “I don’t know, Mommy, let me look up.”

All of this has got me wondering about the ways we adults use the question “why?” and where that takes us. We ask the question when we want to discover the cause of something. Why do people get cancer or Alzheimer’s disease? If we know what causes something, perhaps we can intervene or take control to prevent it from happening. The question “why?” fuels much scientific research, but it is vague. Asking “what?”, “how?”, “when?”, and “where?” often generates more useful data.

When I teach counseling skills I often suggest that beginning counselors avoid asking the question “why?” When people are asked a “why?” question about their behavior, the exchange often begs for a justification and thereby raises defenses. “Why didn’t you take the garbage out?” “Why were you late?” “Why do you drink?” Each of these questions can have a subtext of judgment, an implication that one is somehow at fault. In these examples, the question “why?” can serve to shut down a conversation rather than extend it.

Another frequent adult use of the question “why?” is the “why me?” iteration. When I get a bad diagnosis or my car gets stolen, the temptation is to ask “Why is this happening to me?”  This question tends to be asked from a position of privilege. It implies that the kinds of bad things that routinely happen to many people shouldn’t somehow be happening to me. Asking that question prompts me to blame myself or someone else. It’s also an engraved invitation to self pity.

These last two ways we as adults ask “why?” tend to suck us down black holes.

Perhaps we need a return to the ways toddlers ask the question. Maybe we need to “look up” outside of ourselves and wonder about the world around us. Maybe we need to keep the people around us engaged in conversations about all the interesting things that we and they see.

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