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Insatiable Curiosity: Why Does a Three Year Old Always Ask Why?

Insatiable Curiosity: Why Does a Three Year Old Always Ask Why?

Have you ever been reminded of an Abbott and Costello skit when talking with your three year old? Ever fallen down a rabbit hole of questions, only to hit the rock bottom of your ability to come up with an answer? If so, you have encountered the phenomenon that is the “Why?” stage. Where does this dizzying vortex of inquiry come from? And, more importantly, when will it stop?

“Get your shoes on, honey. We’re going to the store.”
“Why?”
“Because we need groceries.”
“Why?”
“Because we ate up all our food.”
“Why?”
“Because we were hungry.”
“Why?”

Maria Montessori provides us with profound insight into the seismic shift in children’s cognitive development that takes place around the third birthday. Before this milestone, infants and toddlers are “unconscious, absorbent” learners who acquire skills such as walking and talking without self-awareness or intention, by simply following their own innate desire for autonomy and imitating others in their environment. Around age three, however, they become “conscious” learners, who actively seek knowledge and master new skills through purposeful, deliberate inquiry and practice. It is around this time that many children stumble upon a magical word; one that elicits a seemingly endless wellspring of useful information from adults. Thus begins the litany: “Why? Why? Why?”

In truth, a child’s “why?” is not the same question we ask as adults. Yes, children do crave our explanations as they seek to understand their world, but they are not necessarily expecting any elegant, logical, or scientific answers. More often, “why?” translates to: “I’m curious about this topic. I like it when you explain what will happen next. I cherish your attention and the love I feel from you when you talk to me. I want to hear all of the words you know so that I can learn how to use them, too. I want to use long sentences and have conversations, just like you do. Let’s practice talking together!” Like a game of verbal ping-pong, each thread of “whys” and responses helps children develop engaging, socially adept conversation skills that will serve them well throughout their lives.

For a great perspective on the whys behind “why,” click here for a great article from child psychologist Dr. Alan Green. And to learn more about Montessori’s research on the developing brain, please visit our Parent Resource Library, or ask your child’s teacher at GMS. (Why? Because we love talking about this stuff.)