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3 Ways to Handle Your Toddler’s Why Phase

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In the months leading up to my son’s second birthday, friends and fellow parents warned that the coming year would likely be a challenging one and advised me to brace myself for what was to come. Thankfully, we survived the Terrible Twos with our sanity pretty much intact, but now we’re on to the Tumultuous Threes, and with that comes a phase of toddlerhood I’ve known many a parent to dread: the why phase.

For the past six weeks, my perpetually curious toddler has been on an all-out “why” rampage, asking the question anywhere from 17 to 106 times a day (yes, I’ve counted). Sometimes his inquiry will have merit, but most of the time, he’s pretty much spouting it out by rote.

Case in point:

Me: “We need to get into the car now, honey.”

Him: “Why?”

Me: “Careful, you don’t want to knock over those blocks.”

Him: “Why?”

Me: “Finish your breakfast.”

Him: “Why?”

And so on, and so on, from morning ‘til night.

READ: The Why Phase

In the very beginning, I almost got a kick out of it. Then somewhere around the two-week mark, I quickly went from amused to irritated. At this point I’m somewhere in the middle, as I’ve grown to accept the idea of my days being filled with “why,” after “why,” after “why.”

To retain a bit of my sanity while attempting to nurture my son’s newfound curiosity, I’ve devised three strategies for dealing with the question when it arises.

1. Encouragement

I believe that asking “why” is a healthy habit, to an extent. It shows a certain level of sophistication on my toddler’s part. Rather than just accept the things he hears as fact, he makes an effort to question them. When I’m at my most patient, I try to respond in a manner that fosters some dialogue around the matter at hand. So in response, I’ll often come back with something along the lines of “Why do you think? Let’s talk about it.” Just the other day, I asked my son to wash his hands after using the bathroom. When he asked why, I responded just like that. He thought about it and said, “Because sometimes in the bathroom we get a little dirty, and when we get dirty, we need to wash our hands.” Though I could’ve easily dismissed the question, I chose to pursue it, and it helped my son work out a logical conclusion.

2. Mocking

I’m only human, and sometimes my tolerance (very quickly) gives way to frustration. When this happens, I employ the tactic of mocking my son’s questions as a way to get him to realize that while asking “why” is perhaps OK a lot of the time, it’s not OK EVERY SINGLE SECOND OF EVERY SINGLE DAY. (OK, and we’re breathing…)

READ: The Strange but Effective Way I Conquer My Toddler’s Tantrums

So to convey that message, when he asks “why,” I’ll often respond with “Z.” While this approach is rooted in my own lack of patience (which, I promise, I’m working on), I find that it can be effective at getting my son to learn not to ask the question when he knows the answer, or when it simply doesn’t apply.

3. Ignoring

And then there are the times when my son will ask “why” and I’ll choose to ignore the question outright. I take this approach when “why” is essentially used in place of “no.” For example, if I say, “It’s time to pick up your toys,” and my son comes back with, “why,” I won’t indulge the question because we’ve gone over the answer many, many times before. On the other hand, I won’t use the mocking approach, because I don’t find disobedience particularly funny. Ignoring my son outright is something I don’t generally do; even when he gets into fit mode, l usually try to engage him and calm him down. So when he sees that I’m ignoring the “why” under certain circumstances, it usually sends the message that he ought to substitute it with an emphatic “yes” or not ask it to begin with.

As much as I can appreciate the thought process behind the why phase, I’m hoping it’ll soon start to taper off, and that my son will reserve the question for points that truly do need to be discussed. But for the time being, I’m glad to have a few solid strategies in my arsenal.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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