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Why children ask ‘why?’ – and how to stop it from driving you crazy

‘Building a foundation for life-long learning’ is a common phrase to find in school mission statements, yet student motivation is an ongoing concern in public education: children’s engagement with learning actually decreases as time spent in traditional school increases.

For parents of preschoolers, this news may be surprising.  After all, our young children have an incredible thirst for knowledge – so much so that it can drive us nuts:

Mommy, why is your water bottle green?

Because I picked a green one at the store.

Why?

I liked that color better than red, and I needed a new water bottle.

Why?

Because it’s good to have water with you whenever you go somewhere.

Why?

Because water keeps your body healthy.

Why?

Because water helps carry nutrients and oxygen all around your body.

Why?

Because we’re alive, so we need oxygen and nutrients.

Why?

Because all living things need food, air, and water.

Why?

That’s just how living things are.

Why?

[Silent mental parental scream…]

But I often find that when I understand a bit more about why my child is doing something, it doesn’t drive me nuts in quite the same way as it did before.

 

First, rule out a simple need for your attention and engagement

There are times when a preschooler asks ‘why’ because they want to want to continue to have your attention and converse with you, and aren’t sure how to do it.  If you think this is the case, you can say “It sounds like you really want to keep talking with me about [topic], is that right?”  If they say “yes,” you can then ask them what they want to know, and scaffold their ability to have an actual conversation about it.

 

Curiosity

But there are other times when the child really does want to know about something and once you get the limit of your ability (or willingness) to answer, you can write the question down and say “Let’s try to figure that out when we have more time!”  This is the spark that leads to learning and if you have a goal of raising an adult who has an intrinsic motivation to learn then these questions are the beginning of that process.

Curiosity is the critical jumping-off point of learning. We retain information better when we are curious – which is why schools try to manufacture curiosity. When we read to try to answer our questions, we comprehend better, so teachers have students brainstorm questions they want to answer before reading a text as a way to try to ‘activate interest’ in a topic that otherwise holds no interest for them (because they didn’t choose it, and who really enjoys learning things that don’t interest them?).

Psychologists also advise that teachers frame tasks in ways that are artificially, not authentically, interesting or ‘flashy.’ For example, they may try to drum-up interest in the Pythagorean Theorem by having students calculate the distance Captain James T. Kirk needs to set on the transponder beam on the Federation Starship Enterprise to pick up dilithium crystals directly below on the planet’s surface, given that Kirk only knows the distances of the ship and the crystals from a third point where his scouting party is stopped.  Unfortunately, manufactured curiosity doesn’t endure the way genuine interest does.  It might get the student to the answer on this particular occasion, but the underlying method is much less likely to be retained.

 

Interest

Sometimes children just ask ‘why’ out of habit (or because what they actually seek is a connection to you, not the answer to their question), but if you do decide to record their questions to investigate later, you may start to notice some trends – perhaps an interest in in animals, the human body, the way people act, motion, food, or something else.

Many times the ‘why’ questions show what is called situational interest, which is when people display interest in something because of the situation where they happen to be in.  Book authors might use the structure of a mystery to create suspense, and then add details that are engaging to the reader which attract and hold your child’s attention. Teachers often set up artificial mysteries to entice children to learn about a topic they must cover in the curriculum, but children will be most engaged by authentic mysteries – things they really wonder about and want to understand better.

Over time, situational interest may lead to personal interest. These are the interests that endure because the child enjoys learning about them. Researchers don’t yet understand why some situations spark personal interest and others don’t, but tailoring learning to your child’s personality may help.

 

Learning and basic understanding

When students pursue their interests, learning follows, which leads to a basic understanding. You may have heard the saying, “you don’t know what you don’t know:” without a basic understanding, you don’t even realize how much more there is to understand.

When students lack basic understanding on a topic, their interest doesn’t develop any further and they’re never able to get to a point where they become intrinsically motivated to learn more about it. Researchers found that students who decided not to major in science did not understand basic scientific principles even though they had received several years of instruction in science.

People who lack basic understanding on a topic also can’t ask the kinds of questions that lead to deeper learning. Two major elements of successful learning are expectancy and value. Before learning a new task, children think about how well they expect to do at a task and how much they value the outcome.  One study showed that the hypotheses students form about the level of success they will have predicts their actual level of success even better than their prior grades in that subject!

 

More learning

In the ‘more learning’ phase of the motivation and learning model, the environment and guidance are important.  Meaningful projects and collaboration help maintain interest. Students in this phase are asking themselves:

“How am I doing?”

“Why do I enjoy this?”

Students determine how much effort they want to put into learning based on their answers to these questions – although they are most likely asking and answering them subconsciously. When students believe they are succeeding because of their own efforts, that they have the ability to continue succeeding, and that they’re enjoying either what they are learning or how they are learning it – or both! –  they are more likely to progress to the next phase of learning and motivation.

To encourage learning and motivation, parents need to know when to intervene and when to let go using a process called scaffolding. If a child is left to struggle too much, they may determine they are not capable of success, but intervening too early may cause children to attribute success to the outside assistance of their parent rather than to their own efforts.  It’s a fine balance, and one that requires the parent to be attuned to their child’s personality and signals.

Your child may choose to revisit specific experiences (books, museum visits, films…); with our grown-up linearly organized brains, this can seem like a waste of time.  But actually this ‘spiral learning’ is an effective way to integrate learning and extend understanding of a topic – at any age.

 

Competence

Competence – along with autonomy (the child has chosen what they’re learning about) and relatedness (they’re learning along with people with whom they have an emotional connection) – is a key element of something called self-determination theory.  When competence, plus autonomy and relatedness are high, the child becomes intrinsically motivated to learn: they want to learn for learning’s own sake.  They aren’t trying to get good grades or win a competition (although these may end up being handy fringe benefits); they are just really enjoying the process of learning itself.

Of course, our whole lives aren’t – and can’t be – organized around situations that provide competence, autonomy and relatedness.  There are times when we’ve just got to learn something because we have an end goal in mind – which can provide its own source of motivation.  I’m reminded of an anecdote from Ben Hewitt’s fabulous book Home Grown, in which his wife Penny observes their sons Finn and Rye – who have never attended school or taken a test – spending hours studying for their hunting licenses.  Hewitt notes: “Much of the information in the [state-supplied] books was fairly useless, at least for two boys who already knew they should dress in layers and never look down the barrel of a loaded gun.”

Penny whispers “Look at them!  They’re learning how to memorize useless information in order to pass a test, just like in school!”

In this case, the children’s desire to achieve a goal – the hunting license – provided ample motivation to study in a situation where autonomy to choose the material studied was absent.  In this case Finn and Rye had selected a subject where they already possessed competence – but it is also possible that their interests could one day lead them to a topic (canoeing, maybe?  advanced wilderness medicine?) where their existing competence is low but their autonomy (they chose the topic) is high.  It’s really only in school where children regularly encounter situations where competence and autonomy may both be low – and their relatedness will depend on their relationship with their teacher’s skill and personality.

 

Flow

Flow is when everything seems to come together to “create a special state of absorption and enjoyment in what one is doing.

In a state of ‘flow’ an individual has a high level of intrinsic motivation and enjoyment.  What does flow look like?  It has several components; the ones most relevant to us are:

  • Challenge-Skill Balance: the challenge is appropriate for the individual’s level of skill and their level of confidence;
  • Clear Goals: The individual in a flow state knows exactly what they need to do. They set their own goals and act accordingly;
  • Unambiguous Feedback: As they work, they get ongoing feedback from the task itself (not the teacher) that gives them clear information they can use to assess their progress and adjust their approach if needed;
  • Loss of Self-Consciousness: Individuals in a state of flow aren’t concerned about how they appear to others. They are completely absorbed in the task at hand. They are not concerned with how their performance ranks in relation to other students;
  • Time Transformation: Some people experience flow as slowing or stopping time; for others, time seems to pass more quickly.  Flow brings the individual fully into the present.

Flow is considered the optimal state for learning – and the best way to promote it is to maximize competence, autonomy, and relatedness.  So let your child choose what they learn, and support them in developing their own competence rather than trying to teach them what you think is important (the best part about this is that it’s actually really fun!)

 

Need some help in supporting your child’s intrinsic motivation to learn?

Parents have an important and challenging role in guiding their child’s learning and motivation. We need to introduce them to information and experiences they wouldn’t discover on their own. We need to notice our children’s interests and support their exploration. Simultaneously, we need to allow them to have autonomy in making decisions about their learning.

Once you have some practice it’s not necessarily difficult but it can be a new skill set for parents who may be used to a more instructional teaching method where you already have relevant knowledge – or a sense of being completely lost where you don’t know much about the topic of your child’s latest fascination.  That’s why I’ve created a learning community for parents who are interested in inspiring their children to pursue their passions and become life-long learners.

It turns out that despite our strong desire to encourage our children to learn and be successful, parents may be unintentionally starting the gradual decline of motivation to learn. When our children ask those endless ‘why’ questions that can drive us nuts, many of us find ourselves shutting it down in exasperation. And when we do respond with a “well, photosynthesis works like this…” kind of answer, your child may learn that it’s not worth the hassle of asking in the first place.

This process continues in school, where children quickly learn that it’s the teacher’s job to ask questions, and students are rewarded for supplying the (correct) answer.  Unfortunately, this leads to what researchers Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman have called The Creativity Crisis – while IQ scores are consistently inching up, we are becoming less and less creative.

And what underlies creativity?  The ability to ask questions.

 

So what can we do?

We need to start early.

We need to listen to our children, and follow their lead.

We need to be the “guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.

But how do we guide our children to a place where they find the joy and motivation to learn and succeed?

This is what we’ll explore in the Your Child’s Learning Mojo membership.

In the first three months of the membership you’ll learn how to effectively support your child through each stage of the learning process.  You’ll be able to:

  • Identify your child’s true interests (harder than it sounds!)
  • Help you guide your child as they develop their interests.
  • Facilitate your child’s learning by connecting them with resources they need to answer their questions.
  • Document your child’s learning.
  • Support your child in deepening their understanding.
  • Communicate what they have learned to communities who care.
  • Support your child in learning to solve real problems that have meaning to real people.

You’ll receive a Guide to read at the beginning of each month, and we’ll have a group call each month where you can ask questions and get live coaching from me.

Throughout the membership you’ll join other parents who are learning these skills alongside you in a private Facebook group, and after the first three months of core content we’ll continue to support each other in the group as you practice your new skills, and ask questions to get you unstuck as you’re working with your child.

The group will reopen to new members 6-12 months after the original members join, and I will rerun the initial intensive study – possibly varying the topics based on group interest, and you’ll be welcome to work through this material again. With every exposure to the ideas, your understanding will deepen – mirroring the process of the learning you’re supporting in your child.

I am really excited to begin this journey with you!

This membership is designed to support all parents of children old enough to ask questions. Whether you are committed to homeschool, public school, private school, or still deciding, this membership will help you to become your child’s ‘guide on the side’ in learning – and in life.

Click here to learn more about the Your Child’s Learning Mojo membership

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About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

Her Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group supports parents in putting the research into action in their real lives, with their real families. Find more info at www.YourParentingMojo.com/Membership

She also launched the most comprehensive course available to help parents decide whether homeschooling could be right for their family. Find out more about it – and take a free seven-question quiz to get a personalized assessment of your own homeschooling readiness at www.YourHomeschoolingMojo.com

And for parents who are committed to public school but recognize the limitations in that system, she has a course to help support children's learning in school at https://jenlumanlan.teachable.com/p/school

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