Why? Why? Why? Why 3 Year Olds Never Stop Asking, ‘Why?’

Using the rationale safe and healthy to help answer the question, ‘why?’

Keener is full on 3. Developmentally, 3 is the age of “why?” which we are in, full blown. “In terms of development, very young children…haven’t mastered the ability to use logic and words to express their feelings, and they live their lives completely in the moment,” according to The Yes Brain, one of my favorite child development books. “But when a toddler begins asking “Why?” all the time, you know that the left brain is beginning to really kick in. Why? Because the left brain likes to know the linear cause-effect relationships in the world — and to express that logic with language.”

It often takes me 6+ explanations trying to answer “why” until Keener is content with the answer. After the 3rd “why,” I often find myself wanting to say, “because that is just the way it is!!” or “Because I said so!” But I am trying to keep his developmental curiosity in mind in an effort not to lose my own mind.

One phrase that has really helped of late is “safe and healthy.” It is a catch all for many of life’s less pleasant “why” scenarios. “Why do I have to get shots at the doctor?” To keep you safe and healthy. Sometimes you get shots and sometimes you don’t. Even if you get a little ouch from a shot, the doctors and nurses are doing it to keep you safe and healthy.

Another great place I use this phrase is in the car. Keener will want my attention because his shoe fell off, he dropped the toy he was holding, or he can’t reach his water bottle. Every time, I respond with the same phrase. We’ve gotten to the point when I tell Keener “not right now,” he inevitably asks, “why” and I turn it back on him. Why can’t mama get your shoe right now? “Because you are driving and have to keep your eyes on the road to keep us safe and healthy.” That’s right. Mama has to keep her eyes on the road to keep us safe and healthy, and to keep the other cars and people outside safe and healthy too. I can’t turn around until we are at a red light. Then Mama can help you.

By naming for Keener why I can’t help him in that exact moment and giving him a concrete time that I can help him, he stops asking for my help. Instead, he is on the prowl for the next red light when he knows I can help him meet his needs. As he develops an understanding of the importance of safe and healthy, his ability to delay gratification has increased. In essence, he is developing patience. The “I want it and I want it now!” initial instinct is being tempered with an understanding that others have needs as well. See my previous post for ideas on developing theory of mind.

I also often use this phrase as a ‘catch all’ for when he is not listening. Generally, when he is not listening, there is a decent chance whatever he is doing could result in an injury. Or hurt someone else. So when I find myself talking to him about following my directions, I will say, Keener, I need you to listen in order to keep everyone safe and healthy. When you swing that stick that is in your hand too close to Lucy, it may scratch her which means she is not safe and healthy. You need to listen to mama to make sure that you stay safe and all of your friends stay safe as well. That’s one of my main jobs, to keep you and your friends safe and healthy.

It may not completely change the behavior or prevent it from happening again, but I can see his little wheels turning — seeing that his actions have an impact on others, and possibly not a positive one.

By giving him the lense of “safe and healthy,” he has developed increased self awareness, as much as a 3 year old can. Additionally, he has increased his patience with me when I can’t meet his need right away. He is starting to see that having mommy keep her eyes on the road keeps everyone safe and healthy; my toy that has fallen on the floor can wait.

Other times/places I use this phrase:

  • Putting on seat belts in the car/airplane
  • Not using sharp adult scissors
  • Not playing with the oven
  • Not playing on the stairs
  • When a police/ambulance/fire truck siren may be unsettling — The siren helps the firemen keep everyone safe and healthy. Do you see how the cars move out of his way? The sirens make sure all of the cars are safe and healthy and there are no accidents while they help someone who might be sick.
  • Putting sunscreen on — Sunscreen keeps us safe and healthy from the sun. We don’t want our skin to get burned and sunscreen helps our skin stay safe and healthy

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