Answering the Endless ‘Why?’: Children’s Questions Matter, and So Do Our Answers

March 29, 2018

When you spend time with preschoolers, it can seem like they ask a question a minute. In reality, it’s probably more, because studies show that preschoolers ask an average of 72 questions per hour. Although the endless “why” questions can drive parents a little crazy, answering them thoroughly is helpful for children’s cognitive development, says Dr. Kathleen Corriveau of Boston University.

Corriveau’s studies build on previous research about the importance of talking to children to show that the way adults answer children’s questions – especially causal questions that start with “why” and “how” – influences the way children understand the world, judge the trustworthiness of adults’ responses, and even how they do in school. Adults may think that young children can be satisfied by any response, including the infamous, “because it is,” or “because I said so.” But children are surprisingly sensitive to that kind of circular logic, Corriveau’s research shows: not only do they feel unsatisfied when an adult gives such a response, but they are less likely to trust that adult as a source of information in the future. In contrast, when parents provide elaborated answers, such as “we have to keep the fridge closed so that the cold air stays inside and keeps the food fresh” or “the house has a foundation to make it sturdier,” children are more likely to ask additional questions and display critical thinking skills – the kind of skills that are linked with academic success.

Parents can rest assured that they don’t need to be experts at construction or refrigeration, however, because Corriveau’s studies show that children benefit from hearing an elaborated response even if it isn’t technically correct. In one study where parents and children worked with an educational toy to build electrical circuits, children were more likely to complete the project and then pursue another one on their own if their parent provided some sort of explanation of how the circuit worked. Yet when the researchers examined the parents’ responses in greater detail, they discovered that not a single one was factually correct. Corriveau isn’t recommending that parents intentionally mislead their children or even suggesting they need to respond to every single question, but her studies suggest that patterns of responses matter over time.

School readiness and educational equity are guiding interests of Corriveau’s, and she finds a trend of socioeconomic differences in parents’ responses that raises concerns about the risk of achievement gaps. Although parents from low- and middle-SES families give similar kinds and numbers of responses to factual questions (such as “what is that thing?”), low income parents are less likely to provide elaborated responses to causal questions (such as “how does this work?”). Furthermore, when low- income parents give no response or a circular one, their children are more likely to let the matter drop, whereas middle-income children are more likely to persist with their questions or fill in the gap with their own explanations. (It should be noted that, as with all research, these findings are about average patterns and do not imply that families of similar backgrounds all act in the same way.)

Corriveau cites a number of possible reasons for class differences, including cultural norms about the appropriateness of children questioning authority figures, but she worries the trend could put low-income children at a disadvantage in an educational system that prizes verbal reasoning and inquiry. Corriveau and her students, who are “passionate about reducing inequality before it starts,” are now partnering with a science museum to teach parent visitors to talk with their children about the exhibits and activities in ways that can extend their thinking. As the parent and child talk and play together, an experimenter helps the parent ask questions that focus on the scientific process rather than on facts. Preliminary results suggest that the brief intervention helps children think more deeply and ask more questions.

What if you don’t know the answer to your child’s question? Corriveau suggests it is best to give a response such as, “I don’t know. Let’s explore that and find out together.” Her research shows that children don’t need us to be experts, but they do need us to show an interest in what they’re curious about. “Because” is a good place to start a response, but when it comes to promoting children’s learning, it’s not a sufficient place to end.

Kathleen Corriveau is a recipient of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award, to be presented during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in New York City, April 13-17, 2018.