A word to the whys: My son’s new favourite word

In my working life, I’m an editor. I mostly work with academics writing about sceptical philosophy, so you’d think I’d have quite a good grasp of how to deal with people who are constantly asking questions (though I had to say it didn’t always end well for them). However, I have found that this does not extend to my nearly three-year-old son, who recently discovered the dreaded “why.”

I knew about this stage from friends with older children, but I hadn’t quite anticipated quite how determined he would be to get to the bottom of things. It’s like living with a small and incredibly surreal private detective. Of course, I’m delighted that he’s inquisitive about things. It’s amazing to be able to have an actual conversation with him now and to see how he approaches the world. And it’s flattering that he seems to think I have the answer to everything, like some sort of human Google that also dispenses snacks, carries all his stuff, and doubles as a handy climbing frame. I just wish he wasn’t so dedicated to finding out about every single thing. Most conversations with him these days are like a bizarre game of tennis, which you lose when you run out of either patience or answers. Sometimes, we get a good rally of 8 or 9 questions, with me effortlessly batting back his “whys” with acceptable answers until eventually he wears me down and sends me one I can’t return. Then sometimes, he serves me a blinding ace, such as “Why is Spiderman not Captain America?”, and I have no idea what to say. I don’t know, maybe he just felt a better affinity with spiders than with the stars and stripes? Maybe the costume didn’t fit him? Maybe he has a crippling phobia of shields? Game, set, match. New brain, please. I need a lie down.

The most infuriating thing is that my son doesn’t extend me the same courtesy. “Tell me whyyyyyyy?” he wails at me like an imploring, pint-sized Backstreet Boy whenever he wants to know why the sun is going down instead of up or why my friend’s baby is a baby, but when I ask him reasonable questions like “why don’t you want to use the potty?” or “why don’t you want to eat your dinner?”, he’s curiously tight-lipped. I think I’d find this easier if we had a reciprocal approach to information-sharing rather than it all going in one direction.

He’s been asking “why” a lot over the past few days in relation to why we can’t go places or see people like we had been doing for the past couple of months. I wish I had a better answer than “because we’re not allowed to” (although it was very amusing when my first and slightly flippant answer to this question, “because Boris said so,” led to the follow-up question of “what’s a Boris?”). I know there will be many, many occasions when I won’t be able to give him the answers he needs in his life and when I might be the last person he wants to ask, especially when he finally works out that I can’t control the sun and make it daytime just because he wants it to be. So perhaps for now I should be flattered that he thinks I know everything and try to be as patient as I can for a small child in a confusing world, even if I’d rather have a few minutes of peace. Keep asking questions, my curious boy, and I’ll keep trying to find the answers.

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