The Best Way to Answer Kids When They Ask ‘Why?’

Children ask tons of questions; one analysis put preschoolers at 76 per hour. Most of the time they’re looking for facts, but as they turn into kindergarteners, the little detectives start fishing for causes: Just 4 percent of 2-year-olds’ queries are looking for explanations, while it’s 30 percent for 5-year-olds’. When tracking the diaries of moms of kids in that same age group, researchers have repeatedly found that the children are asking about a whole range of processes — why mechanical, natural, and social things occur. These are examples of what researchers call “teleological reasoning,” which guides the “profoundly human compulsion to ask questions, such as ‘Why?’ and ‘What is it for?’”

In a recent essay for Aeon, Tilburg University philosopher Matteo Colombo expands on earlier thinking around how a childhood drive for truth parallels a scientific one. (To riff on another philosopher, not only are “children little scientists,” but “scientists are big children.”) To Colombo, kids and researchers are alike in their inquiries, as they both “look out in the world, trying to find patterns, searching for surprising violations of those patterns, and attempting to make sense of them based on explanatory and probabilistic considerations.”

This framework illuminates how, precisely, to answer kids’ incessant questioning. Research indicates that when kids don’t get an explanation-based answer, they’re more likely to re-ask their original question — or answer it themselves. While not exhaustive, studies on how kids learn suggest that what they’re really looking for is how specific instances plug into broad categories. A well-crafted explanation is a case of this-means-that: Apple falls from tree, evidencing gravity.

It apparently comes easily to a tyke: preschoolers have been shown to be handy with “teleological assumptions,” like how biological characteristics guide their inferences about unfamiliar animals. For instance, they’ll reason that an otter and a booby bird, since they share the same functional body part (webbed feet), are more likely to share behavior (living in and around water) than animals that more generally look the same, like an otter and a weasel. But this same impulse toward pattern-matching can go awry into adulthood, warn Berkeley psychologists Joseph J. Williams and Tania Lombrozo, like in the case of conspiracy theories or social stereotyping. So maybe it’s good to teach kids that it’s okay to not know, too.

The Best Way to Answer Kids When They Ask ‘Why?’