I've always struggled with asking questions, and one particular childhood memory reminds me why that is. I was 16 years old, dressed in my uniform and being driven to high school by my mother. When we reached the school, she handed me some form of letter and asked me to take it to the school office. I happily obliged. Wanting to engage in a conversation with my mum, I cheerfully asked what it was that I was holding and why it needed to be taken to the office. Instead of being pleased at my inquisitiveness, she became annoyed at my question and said, “If you don't know what you're doing, then I'll just do it myself!” I tried to explain that I was just curious, but my mother's anger just deepened further. This wasn't the first time I had felt incredibly hurt and ashamed for asking her a question. I wished I hadn't asked at all.
An endless stream of questions
Young children are curious beings. They look at their surroundings in awe, yearn to smell and touch what they haven't before, question what they don't understand. As children grow older, the frequency and types of questions asked does indeed change, but a child's thirst for knowledge still remains. Yet it's during these early years that their questions really need to be encouraged.
In a 2012 report, online retailer Littlewoods surveyed 1000 mothers with children aged between two and ten. The survey looked at a typical day at home with children and how often they asked questions. The results found that young children ask their mums an astonishing 228 questions a day.
According to clinical psychologist, Sally-Anne McCormack, children ask lots of questions because they're naturally curious. “Everything around them is new - everything that they see, everything that they touch and feel and smell is new for them. They want to know more about it.”
Although young children may appear relentless with their 'why' questions, they may not necessarily want an answer - just an opportunity to engage in a conversation about something they're interested in.
McCormack says, “Children aren't necessarily asking 'why'. It may be the only word in their vocabulary that they have to say, 'I want to talk about this more.'”
Try not to discourage the questions
As parents, it would be impractical to answer every single question throughout the day. McCormack says that as long as you're encouraging your children to ask questions most of the time, it's perfectly reasonable to leave the answer for a later time. Your children should be aware that if you're busy, stressed or tired - your needs matter too.
However, if a child is repeatedly being discouraged from asking questions, there could be a detrimental effect on their development.
“When we discourage children from any human interaction we run the risk of damaging healthy attachment and bondedness which is the number one necessity for babies, toddlers and children,” says Maggie Dent, an author, educator, and parenting and resilience specialist. “Children who are discouraged often will simply stop asking questions and they will tend to pull away to protect themselves.”
“Compassionate communication with children needs parents fully present and to really listen to what the child is asking,” says Dent. “Clarifying what they mean in a gentle and caring way will ensure they feel heard and valued.”
Providing encouraging responses
Sally-Anne McCormack suggests that we encourage our children to ask questions by showing that we value their question. This can be done through the excitement in our voice and by being genuinely interested in what they have to say.
Rather than simply answering with a “yes” or “no”, we should elaborate and make a comment. We could even respond with our own question: “Good question, why do you think this happened?”
And it's essential that you ask questions of other people too, so your children can learn by example.
Maggie Dent suggests using the following phrases to keep your young child engaged in a conversation:
“Now that’s interesting!”
“Tell me more!”
“You don’t say...”
“How about that!”
“Say that again. I want to be sure I understand you.”
Catalyst for change
Your child's courage to ask questions and your willingness to answer them, matter a great deal to the future around us. You are helping your child to expand their view of the world, and to accumulate knowledge that will eventually make the world a better place to live in.
And just like science shows us through inventions like the telephone, the cures of many cancers - in order to find answers, we must first ask the right questions.
As parents, we need to do what we can to encourage questions in our children. So hopefully one day, their curiosity might be the catalyst for immense change as well.
Thuy Yau is a freelance writer. She is passionate about raising happy and confident children. You can read her personal development blog at Inside a Mother's Mind.