I hopped diagonally from one fallen leaf to another, hearing them crinkle under my little 3-year-old feet. I suddenly stopped dead in my tracks, my eyes wide. “Mama, why do flowers have petals?”
“To look pretty, so that insects and birds come to them,” my mother answered.
“Mama, why are those things sticking out?” I asked.
“That’s the stamen,” she responded. She went on to explain pollination, gently nudging me forward. An hour later, we were still only several yards from the house, yet had covered composting, aerodynamics of planes, and why ants were crawling over a browned apple core on the ground. All in a day’s nature walk.
Now, as a child psychiatrist who guides parents through the development of their young ones, I realize how important it was that my mother answered all of those questions, even when it must have been tiresome. It turns out that by answering and asking questions, parents play a vital role in a child’s learning. By paying attention to this simple — sometimes annoying — phenomenon, parents may help shape their child’s development and better set them up for longer term success.
Research has shown that the more motivated kids are to learn early in life, the more likely they will be successful later. In 1979, researchers at California State University, Fullerton, began following 130 infants all the way through adulthood, amassing 17,000 data points per person. They tested the kids at regular intervals until age 17 and then surveyed them in adulthood. The unique 30-year project, called the Fullerton Longitudinal Study, found that, independent of IQ, kids who were especially curious and enjoyed learning scored higher on standardized tests, were more likely to stay in school, and were more likely to go to graduate school than their less curious peers.
Parents can easily influence a child’s love for learning, which I think for many kids is just as important to success as genetics or teachers. In my work with families, the most important thing parents can do to foster that love is to answer questions in a way that leaves a child feeling satisfied and motivated to ask more questions. For example, if your child asks why we have bedtimes, rather than saying, “Because I said so,” tell them, “Because the body needs to rest and heal to grow strong.”
Before the 2000s, scientists thought that asking questions was a strategy for children to get attention, but a more recent paper in Developmental Review that examined the whole body of literature about question-asking in childhood turned this idea on its head. It suggested that kids are genuinely seeking information, especially if they aren’t confident in their own knowledge. In other words, kids’ seemingly inane questions are used to learn, especially when they notice something that doesn’t fit their experience.
“Take the example of a child asking why butter melts when it’s placed on top of toast,” said Paul Harris, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor at Harvard University who studies how children learn. “There are hundreds of occasions where you put one thing on top of another and it doesn’t sink into the surface.” So the child turns to Mom and Dad to explain it.
By thoughtfully answering questions about why butter melts or why some adults put on lipstick, parents help a child reconcile new experiences while sending the larger message that curiosity and learning are welcome.
Many parents right now are finding themselves cooped up with such questions all day, every day. Most children are curious and enjoy asking questions. But whether they keep asking them depends on how their parents respond.
In that same Developmental Review paper, researchers found that, before asking a question, children as young as preschool-age often gauge whether someone is likely to answer and whether they will find the information they are seeking. This means that if parents repeatedly don’t answer questions or make kids feel silly for asking, their kids might just hold their questions next time. For those kids, asking questions doesn’t feel worth it. While we don’t know if this directly hinders learning, we do know it’s a lost opportunity for the child to learn.
I’ve also found that one way to promote learning is to take some of the question-asking out of the child’s hands. Parents can ask their own questions. If a child is tapping on a metal object, ask what sound tapping on wood or granite makes. It takes some patience, but it’s easy and goes a long way.
One fascinating study published in March 2019 illustrated how this works by following 65 children, ages 4 to 6, and their parents as they played with toy gear machines at a children’s museum in Austin, Tex. Some parent-child duos were told to play as they normally might, while other parents asked their kids questions like, “How do the gears work?” or, “What will happen if this gear moves?” The kids then went into a separate room to test how well they had learned.
Surprisingly, with just three minutes of experiment time, the children whose parents asked questions were much more engaged with the exhibits and even understood them a little better, especially when it came to remembering what they had learned. It’s a stunning example of how much parents can influence their child’s learning process in a matter of minutes, and with very little effort. Adding up all of those little minutes over time, to me, becomes the true power of parents’ influence on their child’s learning process — and potentially their future.
Thoughtful parenting — the kind that happens during a painfully slow nature walk — might have enormous benefits on a child’s overall well-being, and their trajectory. Parents have an opportunity to understand and shape their child’s development in a way that no one else can. A child’s annoying little “why?” is actually a precious gift, a chance to help them learn, grow and stay healthy.
Neha Chaudhary, M.D., is a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, co-founder of Stanford Brainstorm and has a telemedicine private practice.