I'm constantly flummoxed by the off-the-wall questions I get from my kids. Like the time my older daughter, then 5, asked me why her stuffed-pig lovey doesn't have a penis. He's a boy, isn't he? My profound lack of adequate answers was never more clearly on display.
I'm faced with stumpers like this practically every day, usually when I'm busy cooking dinner or driving down the highway. What do groundhogs eat? Why do mommies have milk in them and daddies don't? What number comes after twenty-'leven? Why isn't a tooth too heavy for the tooth fairy to carry? Can she fly with it? Will her wings break? What if she crashes?
Face it, with kids, pretty much no topic goes unexplored. And while I can't help anyone with twenty-'leven (or, for that matter, the dining habits of groundhogs), I have found some answers to the questions you've probably asked.
Why do kids ask so many questions?
They're trying to make sense of a pretty baffling world, says Carol Faulkner, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Bradley Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. "Being a little kid is like being an adult in a foreign country," she says. "They have new experiences and sensations every day. Sometimes it's fun, but sometimes it's confusing." The constant queries demonstrate that your child is on track developmentally. What's more, the type of questions he's likely to ask correlates to his age:
2 years old: He's going through a language boom and will ask mostly labeling questions: "What's that?" Your answers increase his vocabulary.
3 years old: As his brain develops, he'll work himself up to the "whys": "Why is it dark at night?" Now your responses help him understand what he sees. Parenting.com: Why toddlers ask "why?"
4 years old and up: He's realizing there's a world outside his own sensory experience (there once were dinosaurs, even though they don't exist now, for instance), so he'll build up to more complex questions, often based on how things work together: "How does a car run?" Parenting.com: The toughest questions kids ask
How do I answer when I'm stumped?
The types of questions may be predictable, but the questions themselves sure aren't. And it doesn't matter how smart you are: Your child will ask you something you can't begin to answer. When Kenneth Martin of Chicago, Illinois, was 4, he had lots of questions about electricity. Like, how it works. Problem was, his dad, Drew, had some idea, but not much. So whenever Kenneth asked an off-the-wall question, Martin would say to him, "Do you want the 'science' answer or the 'imagination' answer?" Kenneth had to guess when his dad really knew the answer or when he was just spinning a yarn. Games like this are fine, says Faulkner, as long as your child knows that you're playing around and will help him investigate the real answer later, perhaps with a trip to the library or a Google search.
Follow-up is especially key for older kids, who may really want -- and understand -- detailed answers. It's also OK to say "I don't know, but I bet we can find out." That's what I did when Zoe, 5, asked me, "Why do trees grow for their whole lives but I don't?" I found some answers online -- and helped Zoe call up her grandfather, a scientist.
How do I answer the ones I'd rather run from?
As they grow, most kids add seemingly grown-up questions into their repertoire -- for instance, at 2, many children begin to ask questions about body parts, especially if they have a sibling of the opposite sex. In preschool, they might ask about a pregnant woman's tummy: "How did the baby get in there? How will it get out?" It won't be until they're in grade school that most kids will think to wonder how the baby was made in the first place. So what you should do at any age is answer the specific question (calmly, so your kid knows you're a good source of info on this stuff). Then gradually offer more and more details as your child gets older. Parenting.com: Smart answers to kids' sex questions
Lisa Sherman of New York City started simple when her daughter, Lily, then 4, asked (right on time developmentally) how the baby would get out of a friend's tummy. Sherman stalled by saying that the baby wouldn't be coming out for a while, then gave a basic answer: The doctor would help the baby come out. That made sense to Lily, who then moved on to easier questions about whether the baby would cry and what the baby would eat. Parenting.com: The birds and bees and curious kids
Julie Tutt, a mom of four in Barrington, Rhode Island, says she nearly fainted one morning when her 4-year-old son, Ethan, called to her from the bathroom, "Mommy, why does it stand up like this?" With her husband at work and her two older daughters listening intently, Tutt found herself explaining that he had an erection and it was nothing to worry about. She added, "Run around for a while and it will come down. Then you can go to the potty." Ethan, satisfied, took her advice. Tutt's answer was a good one, says Faulkner. Kids often want solutions, not just explanations.
Can I get the questions to stop? Please?
One night when I made chicken for dinner, I lived through this exchange: "Mommy, you're cooking a chicken?!" Closely followed by: "Is the chicken dead?" (Yes.) "Did you kill it?" (Goodness, no.) "How did it die?" (Perhaps by natural causes? I have no idea.) "Was it a boy chicken or a girl chicken?" (Query to husband: Do we eat rooster, or are all edible chickens hens?) "Don't its mommy and daddy miss it?" (I'm not touching that one.) "Can I have two pieces?" (Yes!) "Will we bury the chicken in a cemetery?" (Chickens don't go in cemeteries.) "Why not? People go in cemeteries, why not chickens? Are our tummies chicken cemeteries? I don't want to be a chicken cemetery!" Parenting.com: Little busybodies -- how to answer all those questions
Sometimes, patient and loving as you are, you just can't take it anymore. "For me, it's not the big questions," says Meredith Willson of West Hartford, Connecticut. "It's the constant, small, repeated questions that get to me. I can answer my 4-year-old's questions during the first read of a book, but by the 20th read, I am done." Cutting back on the queries can be as simple as saying "That's enough questions for now" or "Why don't you save your best questions to ask me at bedtime?" (Thankfully, your child will most likely forget most of them by then.) Then find a solution: When your child peppers you with queries, interpret it as a call for attention. If you can stop whatever you're doing to play or talk with your child for a little while, you might cut down on some of the "whys." Another option: Try redirecting your child to an activity she can do well on her own. She'll occupy herself with something she feels confident about, you'll get a quick break, and you'll build your energy back up for the next onslaught of questions. You'll need it! E-mail to a friend
Lisa Tucker McElroy is the author of nine books for kids, including "Love, Lizzie: Letters to a Military Mom."