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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Teaching Kids To Share

Considering Development and Encouraging Theory of Mind

I often find myself asking Keener to share. You have to share is also one of the most common phrases I overhear at the playground. But what am I really asking Keener to do in this situation? What does it mean to share?

As adults, we decide for ourselves when and what we want to share with others, whether it’s  our food, car, or home. But rarely, if ever, do we ask another adult to give up something that is theirs at the drop of a hat. Can I have your car? I want it.  That just doesn’t happen.

When we are asking our kids to share, we want to be realistic in the ask. I personally don’t like sharing my food. On occasion, I am fine going out to dinner and sharing food with friends and family, but if we are being honest, I really prefer not to. Yet, when we ask our kids to share and they don’t want to, we often make them.

There are a few problems embedded in the way we usually ask our kids to share. First, I don’t think kids actually know what ‘share’ means. They hear us say the word share over and over, but most of the time they aren’t exactly sure what we are asking of them. Second, often when we ask our kids to share, they really don’t want to.  So how do we help our kids understand what this world of “sharing” is all about?

Before launching into what has helped recently with Keener, it’s important to note that we need to keep a child’s development in mind when talking about sharing. ‘Theory of mind’ is an important social-cognitive skill where a child can not only understand their own thoughts, feelings, and wants, but but can distinguish them from what others may be thinking, feeling and wanting.

A good example of this skill involves the following scenario. Take a bag of pretzels and put toys inside the bag, and then ask a child what is in the bag. That child will say pretzels, and be surprised to find there are toys inside the bag instead. Then ask the child “what do you think your friend will say is in this bag?” If the child is three years old, he will say toys, because the child is only thinking about what he knows about the contents of the bag. But if the child is four years old, he will say pretzels, because the four year old can understand that his friend will be tricked just like he was. The four year old is better able to distinguish his thoughts and see that they might be different from his friend’s thoughts.

According to Child Encyclopedia, theory of mind develops without specific teaching, but there are ways to help it develop more quickly by:

  • engaging in rich pretend play;
  • talking about people’s thoughts, wants, and feelings, and the reasons why they act the way they do;
  • hearing and talking about stories, especially those involving surprises, secrets, tricks, and mistakes. These stories invite children to see things from different points of view (Red Riding Hood doesn’t know that the wolf is dressed up as grandma).

Language also plays a big role, and below is some of the language I have used to help Keener develop theory of mind and build his understanding about why I am asking him to share:

I know you love playing with the lawn mower. Do you know who else does? Your friend Clark. When he is over, he also loves playing with the lawn mower, just like you do! That’s why it is important to let Clark have a turn, just like you love having your turn.

You have to look with your eyes to see if a toy is available. Sometimes, someone will have something that you might want. If it is in their hands, they want it too! You can either use your words and ask them for a turn or you can play with something else and look to see when they put that toy down. When you don’t see anyone’s hands on that toy, you know it is available for you to play with.  *This one has worked particularly well with sibling based squabbles. Keener will now say to me, “Grace put it down. It’s available — I didn’t take it from her!” with a sense of pride that he now knows exactly when a toy is available for him to take.

What did you play with at school today?  Who else in your class likes playing with that toy? Sometimes toys can be shared, like playdough. There is usually enough playdough for anyone who wants to play with it. But sometimes there might be only one of something, like a truck. I know you love playing with that green truck at school and I’m guessing Will and Thomas also love playing with the green truck! Because that is a fun truck!

Lastly, deliberately model sharing. If Keener or Grace has something, I will make it a point to say Can I play with that toy please when you are finished? Can we please build with blocks together? The more they hear it, the more likely they are to use this language themselves. Give them the words you want them to use.