The Importance of a Toddler’s “Why?”

For as long as I have studied leadership, I have known that one of the classic ways to keep a team motivated is to explain why they are being asked to do their job.

Oftentimes this why is as big as the vision or mission for the team, and more often the why has to do with how a particular role or action fits in to the big picture – it’s like a puzzle.

For example, if I asked you to use a bulb syringe to collect the boogers of a child you had never met, what would you say?

Well, may I suggest that you would ask “why”? Because truly, who would do that without understanding why? Truly.

If I told you that a sample of those boogers would help us understand how secondhand smoke effects inflammation in a child’s body, which may help us start changing policies to protect kids from the negative effects of that smoke, would you be more willing to do it? I sure would! In fact I did do this and was proud to be a part of a team so committed to the health of children.

You see – understanding why I was collecting boogers (technically called a nasal specimen) was essential to me completing my job without complaint.

I am totally cool with collecting a “nasal specimen” if it will help countless other children to be protected from secondhand smoke in the future. Do you understand?

As adults, we have already learned to use the library, books, internet and people to get our questions answered. But our toddlers? Well… they don’t have this kind of know-how yet, so WE – their parents – are their main resource for all things “why”.

“Mommy – why do I have to eat that broccoli? Why do we wear seat belts? Why is that sticky? Why, momma, do we wash our hands?”

There are just so many of them! And now that my 18-month old has joined the “Why” party, I may actually hear the word at least one hundred twenty-two times per day. Ahhhh!

You haven’t had a day of why’s that has led you to actually – for real – pull your hair out, have you? Of course not. 😉

There are two main reasons why I am trying to remember to be patient with my children when they ask “Why?”:

1. Why is an Indicator of their Curiosity and Desire to Learn

asking-whyEssentially, asking why is the most basic form of research. Our children are doing research at ages as young as 18-months. Woah, super geniuses!

Let’s not squelch their curiosity by losing our patience and asking them to be quiet. Instead, let’s try to answer their questions using terms they understand and when they are able, teach them to find the answers themselves.

Quenching their inquisitiveness may lead them to ask more questions, but it will serve them so well in the long-run because they will become lifelong learners who enjoy the process of findings answers to their questions.

2. Understanding THEIR Why Helps cut Down on Whining

I wrote a post a while ago about Combatting the Whine.

When our children hear our NO and react with a great big and oftentimes high-pitched squeal, it is because they HAVE a why that we simply do not understand!

We say NO so often to their requests and fail to take that essential first step of understanding why they are making a request to begin with!

For instance, in my impatience the other day, my sweet Anna burst out in tears when I said “Just put on your sneakers and let’s get in the car!”. Her reaction was so strong that it actually caused me to pause.

I knelt down and said “Honey girl, why are you so sad?” She replied tearfully stating “Because daddy said I could put my jewels on my crown to bring to Grandma’s“.

If you know my girl at all, you understand how important all things princess are to her. So when I asked her to drop her princess activity, it was like asking me to not make dinner for my family. It was THAT important to her.

Understanding why she was so upset allowed me to explain that she could bring her crown with her and finish putting her jewels on at Grandma’s, which leads me to my third point.

3. Explaining Why Helps Keep Them Calm

Do you enjoy being asked to do things without understanding why? You see, I might do a task I am asked to do because I respect authority, but I don’t tend to be as cheerful about it if it comes out as an order rather than a meaningful request.

When my child understands that I need her to pick up her toys because we do not want anyone to trip and hurt themselves, she feels a greater sense of pride in doing her chore.

There is, of course, an age when kids do not understand why. There is also an age when our kids do not care why. Those are different bridges to cross. But as long as explaining why is helpful, I say “let’s do it!”.

How will you take time today to explain and understand your toddler’s why?



  1. I’ve been through the “why” phase twice so far, and we are on the brink of it beginning again with our third!
    I can remember my first little questioner telling me that her sitter told her she asked “too many why questions”. And truly, she did. But looking at her now at eight years old, she’s one smart cookie 🙂

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