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Kids' endless questions can drive parents nuts, but are great learning tools

Toddler Kate Nowatzki of Fargo. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

When Rochelle Rieck's 11-month-old son broke her niece's dress-up shoe, Rieck became the target of a dramatic inquisition.

"Why? Why would he do this to me?" the 4-year-old girl continued to ask.

Rieck, of Casselton, who also has a 3-year-old son, explained that her baby didn't know any better and he didn't mean to break the shoe.

But the questions continued until the next day when Rieck brought over a hot glue gun to fix the shoe.

Young children's barrage of questions can seem endless.

In fact, Paul L. Harris, a Harvard professor who wrote a book on child development, told, a news and entertainment website that if a child spends one hour a day between the ages of 2 and 5 with a caregiver who is talking to them and interacting with them, they will ask 40,000 questions in which they are asking for some kind of explanation.

As a tired, overworked, overstressed parent, it can be tempting to ignore them or even snap at them for asking the same thing over and over again.

But both parents and child development specialists say asking questions is part of how children learn, and it's up to parents to look beyond the surface question to get to the deeper meaning behind it.

Kelly Olson, director of Children's Services for the Village Family Service Center, said sometimes when children continually repeat questions, even after parents have answered them, what they need are different forms of communication.

Missy Wenstrom of Fargo has 7- and 10-year-old daughters who still often ask "Why?" and "How?"

She thinks a lot of it is just to keep the conversation going because they like the attention, Wenstrom said.

If they don't really seem to be listening to the answers, Wenstrom will ask them why they want to know or what they think the answer is. She will also often brainstorm answers with them and said it's a great way to get to know how they think.

"I think it's important that they understand one question doesn't always have just one answer. It could have several possibilities," Wenstrom said.

Some children learn better by seeing or interacting with something than they do just by hearing an answer, Olson said.

Books and videos might help. Or if a child continues to ask about a schedule or dinner plans, posting that information in a central location like the kitchen could help solve the problem, Olson said.

It can be difficult for toddlers and young children to process abstract concepts like death, so repeatedly asking about something, such as a pet or relative dying, is their way of processing a difficult topic, she said.

"Sometimes we as parents struggle in those domains because it's really hard to describe them," Olson said.

Help through play

Counselors can help guide children through play therapy to help them process what is going on, Olson said.

Rieck said after her husband, who is a farmer, was bitten by a pig, her 3-year-old son, Davis, would pretend to be bitten by a pig during play. This continued for about a month and then he just stopped, she said.

Olson said a similar situation happened with a client whose parents divorced. For several sessions of play therapy she would play with people going back and forth between two houses. Then all of a sudden she didn't want to play that game anymore.

"Just like that, that little girl snapped out of it," Olson said. "She needed to process what was going on. They usually process it through play."

Children will repeatedly ask about something when they are anxious about it, Olson said.

When answering difficult questions about something like pregnancy, Olson says to let the child guide you.

"They don't need to know about sex, sperm and eggs," she said. "Sometimes all they really want to know is the baby comes from God or mommy's tummy."

The more a child asks, the more parents will need to delve into a topic, but they can still keep their answers at the child's level, Olson said.

If, for example, the child asks how the baby got into the mommy's tummy, Olson recommends responding by saying something like, "We were praying for a baby and one day God granted our request."

It's also OK for parents to admit they might not know something and to help their children find the answers online or in books.

"We always feel like we have to have the answers," Olson said. "It's OK to say we don't know."

If Wenstrom doesn't have an answer to her daughters' questions, she will help them look it up or ask someone else, but that's not always possible, Wenstrom said.

"Often our 'Whys?' end up with 'That is something you'll have to ask God when you get up to heaven because I don't have that answer but God does'," Wenstrom said.

Teaching children to find the answers themselves will help them feel more competent, Olson said.

If parents are busy with another task, Wenstrom suggests setting a timer for when they expect to be finished and answer the child's questions when the alarm sounds.

"When a child sees action taken, like setting a timer, to make time for their questions, it will make them feel valued," Wenstrom said, adding that it also cuts down on the whining.

To slow down annoying questions on a road trip, for example (Are we there, yet?), Olson says to keep kids engaged. Usually those questions come when they're bored.

Testing their environment

The questions Rieck usually deals with involve getting things for her 3-year-old-son, who is always asking for something, she said.

"After you feel like you're waiting on them hand and foot, it's easy to get upset," Rieck said.

So she's working on teaching him to wait and to be happy with what he has, she said.

Toddlers will repeatedly ask about or for something as a way of testing and trying to understand their environment, Olson said. When they ask for something, like a drink or a snack and don't receive it immediately, they ask again.

"It's annoying, but for them, it's not making sense because they're giving a command and nothing's happening," she said.

The two main questions Natalie Aughinbaugh of Fargo fields from her 3-year-old on a regular basis are 'What's that?' and 'What are you doing?'

She said most of the time her son already knows the answer so she'll redirect the question back to him, and he'll give her the correct answer.

Aughinbaugh thinks her son does it as a way to confirm what he knows really is true, she said.

Wenstrom said she's certainly lost her cool with her kids, but she tries to put their questions in perspective and realize they have needs and need attention, answers, or help.

She also said if parents don't answer "Why?" questions because they're annoying, they miss out on teachable moments.

"It's important to connect with your kids when they're little to build that trust in the relationship that they can come to you with anything and you will be there for them," she said. "If you blow them off when they're younger, they're probably not going to come to you and tell you the things you really want them to later on."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526