The Magic Phrase to Stop Kids From Asking Why 70 Million Times a Day
I have a love-hate relationship with those kid-sized carts at the grocery store.
Seeing my toddler stand a little taller as she steps up to the plate behind her very own cart? Love.
Watching her methodically arrange every item in the cart like it’s the most important job in the world? Love.
Being on high alert every time she moves a centimeter, to make sure she doesn’t ram the cart into the back of someone’s legs, take a corner too fast and dump all our groceries on the floor, or knock over the perfectly balanced display for this week’s sale on Pinot Grigio? No, thank you.
Now Add This to the Mix
A few weekends ago, we stopped by the store right before my toddler’s nap time. Which meant Bailey’s cart-driving style felt a lot like a game of Bumper Cars.
With baby Charlie on my hip, I hovered close behind Bailey to head off disaster, offering super helpful warnings of “Watch out!” every five seconds.
She’s two, so each time I said, “Watch out,” her response was, “Why?”
Because you’re going to hit someone.
Because you almost knocked over those watermelons.
Because Mommy’s slowly losing her mind.
With every “why,” my tone got sharper and my words got shorter. To save my sanity, I switched tactics and started putting my hand on her shoulder to slow her Tasmanian Devil rampage.
We were managing alright until a middle-aged man took his life into his own hands by walking right in front of her cart as we entered an aisle.
I reached out to grab her shirt. “Watch where you’re going, Bails.”
“Why?” she asked.
I sighed. “Because that man stepped in front of you, and you almost ran into him.”
I let go, and she plowed ahead into the aisle, not at all flustered by the near-collision.
“Why?” But it wasn’t from Bailey. My head snapped up, my narrowed eyes settling on the source.
A guy. Smiling and chuckling at his joke.
I guess the look on my face gave him the idea I wasn’t in a joking mood because his smile slipped, and he said, “No, I get it!”
He gestured to a middle-school-aged kid trailing behind him.
I recovered and laughed, but I didn’t linger to swap all our best parenting tips for coping with kids asking why because I had a loose cannon to chase.
What We’re Doing Wrong When Our Kids Ask, “Why?”
My overreaction to a stranger’s friendly comment was the wake-up call I needed.
I realized that for the first few why’s of every day, I was the model of patience. I calmly explained whatever it was to my toddler, sometimes even coming up with a playful metaphor to bring the point home.
But as we reached 5, 10, 20 why’s, my reserves of patience dried up. Not only that, she’d ask “Why?” for the same things, every day.
- Please shut the baby gate when you go upstairs. Why?
- It’s time to calm your body down for sleep. Why?
- Toothpaste is for brushing your teeth, not for eating. Why?
Up until that weekend, I misunderstood what my toddler was really asking when she asked, “Why?”
She didn’t want me to give her the right answer. Giving her the right answer meant she’d still ask the same question the next time.
She wanted me to lead her toward the answer.
The Magic Phrase to Use With Kids Asking Why
After my eureka moment, I decided I wouldn’t answer the knee-jerk why’s anymore.
Instead, I came up with a new phrase that I use in those situations. Not only has this phrase saved my stores of patience for more important things like when my toddler colors on the furniture with a Sharpie, but it’s also cut way back on the number of why’s I hear every day.
Even when I do hear a why, my toddler will often jump right in after her own question to offer up an idea for an explanation.
If you’re tired of answering your child’s why’s and don’t want to resort to “Because I said so,” try saying this instead:
“You tell me why.”
And wait for her to come up with an explanation. Your little one might need a gentle nudge when you first try this out, so feel free to ask some follow-up questions to get her gears turning. For example:
- What would happen if…? What would happen if you left the baby gate open, and your baby sister crawled over to the stairs?
- Do you think…? Do you think jumping up and down on the bed will get your body ready for sleep?
- Do you see…? Do you see where we keep food in our house? Is that where we keep the toothpaste?
Start with this, and go from there:
“You tell me why.”
This phrase has been a lifesaver in the last few weeks. I now have a positive way to respond to kids asking why, giving me one fewer trigger for losing my cool with my little ones.
Related: I Found the Secret to Being a Happy Mom
But First, a Disclaimer
This is the important part: You have to keep your cool when saying, “You tell me why.”
If you grit your teeth or heave a big sigh or use a snappy tone, it won’t work. You have to want to hear your child’s ideas for this phrase to be effective. And kids are intuitive. They’ll know if you don’t really mean it, and you won’t achieve your desired effect. In other words, have fun continuing to answer “Why?” 70 million times a day.
I made the mistake of using a snappy tone one day, and my daughter shut down. She wouldn’t answer me, and the phrase stopped working. We were back to square one. So I took a break for a few days and tried “You tell me why” again. I kept my tone curious and upbeat, and lucky for me, the damage wasn’t permanent. The magic lived on!
A few more caveats for you:
- Your little one’s brain is working, working, working. Be patient while she comes up with an answer. It might take a few more seconds than you’d expect. You can always try a follow-up question like the ones I gave above, but sometimes just waiting will do the trick.
- Your body language is key. If you cross your arms and show frustration on your face, this phrase won’t work. One trick I’ve found works well is to cock my head a little to one side while I wait. This shows her I’m interested in what she has to say. (I learned this trick from my friend Lauren, who has lots more useful tips on how to teach kids to listen without using words.)
- You might need to fill in the holes. Your kid is figuring out how this big crazy world works, so her first explanation won’t always be spot on. Try to find something you can agree with in her explanation, then bridge from that to your explanation. For example, suppose you tell her to stop eating toothpaste and her first explanation is, “Because it tastes bad.” You might reply with, “That’s right. It doesn’t taste as good as food. But also, it doesn’t have the healthy vitamins and other stuff your body needs from food. And if you swallow too much toothpaste, you might get a tummyache.”
- Your mileage may vary. This worked with my kiddo, and the friends I’ve shared it with said it worked for them, too. But every kid is different, so I can’t guarantee it’ll work for you. Just give it a try for a few days and see what happens. Worst case, you end up back where you started. And best case, you’ll hear about 69 million fewer why’s a day.
Related: The Only Thing You Need to Survive the “Terrible Twos” – With Your Sanity Intact
What This Phrase Won’t Do
Even though this phrase is magic, it won’t help your kid avoid wreaking havoc while pushing her own cart around the grocery store.
If you’re like me and you have a love-hate relationship with those kid-sized shopping carts, let me know if you figure out the secret to avoiding frustration as you hover behind your kid.
In the meantime, I considered trying to convince her the carts aren’t as fun as she thinks, but after thinking it through, here’s what I decided: When my toddler asks if she can push her own shopping cart at the store, I’ll humor her, every time.
Because one day, she won’t ask to push a kid-sized cart. And I’ll ask, “Aren’t you going to grab a cart, honey?”
She’ll wrinkle her nose and say, “No, Mom.” In that moment, three thoughts will pop-pop-pop through my mind:
- She calls me “Mom” now?
- She’s too grown-up to push a kid’s cart?
- I miss the why stage.
So on that day, don’t be surprised if you find me pushing my own cart through the store, ugly-crying while she hangs back pretending she doesn’t know me.
Before you go, get my FREE cheat sheet: 75 Positive Phrases Every Child Needs to Hear
How do you handle your kids asking why? Share in a comment below!
Facebook preview photo by Donnie Ray Jones.
Note: All information on this site is for educational purposes only. Happy You, Happy Family does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician.
Great post! I’m only 20, but I had a great time reading your post. Great writing :)
Love it! I’m actually almost looking forward to the next time I hear “why” so I can try it out … almost. ;)
I’m laughing at the last phrase about “ugly crying in the grocery store”…oh my- I have boys 5 & 10 years and I’m at the place of that now – he’s gonna be gone in 10 more years- cue crying- I’ll blink and it will be- he’s getting ready to start Kindergarten in the fall- cue crying- I can’t believe my baby is going to be in Kindergarten! I’m thankful for their growth but sad to see it too! It goes WAY to fast! And now, I’ll stop here at my desk and get a tissue so everyone won’t ask what in the world I’m ugly crying about at work! :)LOL
I am definitely going to give this a try! We have just hit the “why” stage and it goes on All. Day. Long.
When my daughter asks me why, I usually ask, “What do *you* think?”
Why does it bother people for their children to ask questions? That’s how humans learn. My “babies” are 24 and 18 now, but I love other talking to other people’s kids when they’re asking questions. Maybe I’m weird…:D
When a 5 year old asks why they have to wash their hands after they go to the bathroom 5+ times EVERY SINGLE DAY, (and insists he has no idea why) it gets annoying. At least I know the answer to that one. Most of his questions are about why people think or do things. Like why is the lady in the checkout buying red grapes, not white ones? I could make up a reason (they’re more colorful in fruit salad, they prefer the taste, they have a picky kid who only eats red foods…)
Me: “Don’t go down the stairs with roller skates on, you could fall and really hurt yourself”
Me “Why do you think?”
Him: “I’m asking why because I don’t KNOW why!”
Me: “Because you might fall and hurt yourself.”
I’m sure it doesn’t bother everyone, and I get that it’s a part of learning, but it really gets on the nerves when you hear it all day long, every day to questions that they should either know the answer to, or no one knows the answer to. (Today has been a particularly frustrating day…)
Because it’s defiant more often than not when my preschooler asks why, because it is her way of stalling obecience, bevause it’s whined 99% of the time, because it’s asked about 500 times a day, because I’ve already answered that particular why in 3 different ways, because she definitely already knows why about 50% of the time, and because it’s just freaking irritating at this point.
Yes! This is what I’m dealing with. And then asking them ‘why do you think?’ And the response is “I don’t know…” also in a whine.
my “babies” are 27 & 28……they still ask “why” it equips them for life….but I think I will use this tool next time first
I think it’s when they’re asking questions to be annoying rather than genuine curiosity.
I think your spot on that the tone in which you say “Why do you think,” is key. The last you want to teach them is a snarky comeback, which is what my “Why do you think,” sounds like at the end of the day. But if you can keep your cool and get them going on the right answer I think it might slow down some of the ‘why’s’.
Loved your post. We haven’t gotten to the ‘why’ as yet, but definitely getting the ‘no’. “Take your time ..” and he goes”NO!”
Great post and yes, it’s often the kids who do the best job in leading us parents to answers! Thanks for encouraging such calm responses and connected parenting which pays off in big-hearted ways!
yes!!! I actually love the why stage because we use something similar that has kept it from getting super annoying.
Our phrase is “Why do you think (it is that way, it happened, that would not be a good idea, etc.)?” My 3 year old seems to use “why” either because he genuinely wants to know an answer or because he wants to be the one to *supply* the answer and demonstrate his knowledge. So if he is asking “why” about something he clearly knows, like why are all the dinosaurs dead, we play along and use this strategy and let him tell us … again.
I’m currently expecting my first-born, reading about parenting, and this is one of the best posts I’ve read until now.
You tell us about the benefits as a parent. I see another one, as a teacher: the kid will learn very early to think by himself, which is no less than awesome.
Here in France, we’re told that teaching is to help kids to think, but we often have children (well, up to 15 or 16 years old) who just can’t do that.
So this method, which will make toddler learn to think… For me, it’s a sparkly bucket of hope.
So… Thanks for sharing your tips.
This used to work so well. My little guy is 5 1/2 and in the past few months the ‘why’s have increased by at least 10 times. When I say “Why do you think?” to a question he obviously knows the answer to (like why he should wash his hands after going to the bathroom… which he asks a few times a day), he responds with an “I don’t KNOW why, that’s why I asked!”. Most of his Why questions are unanswerable though. Like asking why some person that we saw on the sidewalk was going in that direction… How am I supposed to know the daily habits of some stranger. I obviously don’t expect him to know why, but I still ask him so that he can make his own assumption, but he rarely does. He wants me to tell him why, and if I make something up, he asks why about that too.
If he asks a why to something that he doesn’t know and I can answer, I have no problem answering it, but I’m not a mind reader. I wish an “I don’t know” would satisfy him, but it only leads to another ‘why’. I feel like banning the ‘W’ word from our house!
I once replied to my nephew: “Why do you think?”
He said, “NO, I ask the questions!”
Great read! I will be using this technique. ??
My kids are older now, 11, 13, 14, 18, and 23, but I still do this with a twist.
My kids don’t ask me “why” anymore. (Yes, you will miss it)
I find I am the one asking “why” too often and it stimulates the dreaded response, “I don’t know”.
I have to be on guard for this all the time and ask open-ended questions to prod my kids to answer.
“Please look at my kitchen counter. If I were giving a million dollars away to the one who could find the item that needs a new home, what do you think I would be talking about?”
~Yes! Your soccer cleats!
“Your expression tells me something big happened at school today. Did you ace your math test? Did your friends meet for lunch again? or Did you fart during your presentation?”
~I have all boys. Just using the F word gets them talking. Don’t ask me why.
I’m so glad neither of my kids ever went through the repetitive why stage lol. My sister in laws niece use to ask why at least 1,000 times a day, and I wanted to rip my ears off every time that kid came over. Of course we did have issues with running through stores, and just acting crazy at times. We decided not to deal with the child sized cart, and instead, I let them help me get items off of the shelves and put them into my cart. It kept them right next to my cart and they were engaged in something that kept them occupied while we shopped. I’d also tell them the next item we were looking for and have them help find it on the shelves too. This worked soo well! It stopped the kids from running around, bickering with each other, and I didn’t have to keep freaking out on them for running people and things over with the kid size cart. And they really do love to help out when I say that I need their help.
My mother used to sometimes say ‘why do u think?’ And I HATED it. I found it dismissive and unhelpful. I didn’t know – that’s why I was asking. If this important adult in my life wasn’t going to help me, then who was? I think it may have been just me- I’m not saying every child feels this way, but just observe your child’s reactions carefully. Maybe your child is like me. And make sure u really sound interested in their reply so they don’t feel that you’re brushing them off.
Loved your post! I’m not quite to why “why stage” as we are only 21 months, but I love, love, love this and will definitely remember!
I answer the first why and the second why I ask, “why do you think?”. Basically he hates it when I do that. Generally it weeds out when he’s just trying to get under my skin or really just curious.
Omg!!! Lol.. as I’m ready this my granddaughter was bouncing on the bed and toppled over.. I told her to stop and she said why.. I jumped in and said why do you think you should’nt do this? and she thought for a second… then said because it will hurt me… wooohoo.. loving it.. thank you.. I’m still smiling… lol..
This works for us about 50% of the time… the other 50% we get “No. YOU tell ME!” To which we roll our eyes and ask again. Toddlers are fun.
I have four boys under eight and have definitely had moments when I was sick of hearing why. I love this post because even though I know it’s important to ask why, it’s not always easy to keep answering. So nice to have another tactic to try. My sister teaches fourth grade and had a student who was severely abused and neglected at a very young age and although she is very smart she doesn’t notice important details. The school councilor feels she never went through the important stage of asking why, and by missing this stage her brain is missing the skills to see the world fully. Let them ask why! Embrace it even when you can’t stand it! It’s so important for their developing brain!
I’ve tried that. My son just makes a game of it and says “No, You tell ME why?” And if I say, because that’s just they way it is (some vague explanation). he says “No, that’s not the whole story. Tell me the WHOLE story.”
Hi! I just happened upon this post as I was browsing Pinterest and daydreaming about the kiddos I hope to have one of these days. As a former elementary teacher, I totally support leading young ones to the answer rather than simply giving it to them! As far as the mini shopping cart nightmare is concerned…that’s a parenting mystery for the ages! I will say though that I worked at a Trader Joe’s in Indianapolis for almost 9 years and we only offered the little carts on weekdays, when the store tends to be less busy. Hopefully we spared some parents a little stress and bruised ankles!
It doesn’t work with my child. She replied, “I don’t know” so quick there is no way she thought about it. I can tell her why and immediately ask her to repeat bavk to me what I just said – I still get “I don’t know”. She could count to 20 and knew her ABCs in English and French before she was 2. H
She can read a little and do easy math in her head now at 3.5. She can recall teeny, insignificant details from months or years ago, but she can’t tell me what I said 5 seconds ago. I’m still at a loss.
With my kids I found, no mater the age, give the the most detailed responce. For example, “Why is the sky blue?” A favorite question of my son. The reflection of the water shown through the curvature of the earth lit up ny the sun. Now for a two year old that’s pretty deep. I found that my answers created curiosity that encouraged reaserch into more information and sometimes to check up on mommy’s anawer. My son necame quite good in reaserching his questions out via liabrary and internet. This tool helped him all through school.
Your answer to why the sky is blue really got me thinking. I never heard that answer before. I was always told that red, orange, and yellow wavelengths are longer and get obsorbed by the atmosphere, whereas blue wavelengths are shorter and get scattered around and picked up by our eyes. Same with water – it’s clear and transparent in a glass, but when you get enough of it, it behaves like air and reflects blue light back at us. Now I’m having an internal “why” crisis. Why is the sky really blue!? ?
Hi! My issue is with my daughter repeating the question every day, sometimes the second she heard the answer. However, I also tried to tell “you tell me why” and her usual answer is “i don’t know” and there we are, and a new “why” questions comes up. My worry is that my daughter doesn’t seem interested in conversation, just interrogation, she is almost 4.5 years old. Any suggestions?
Brilliant! Wish i had this tool some 25 years ago when my 2 were small……I do miss those why years now, they pass by in the blink of an eye!
Great article. I remember the ‘why’ phase too when my daughter was a toddler. Now she’s older and is an incurable chatterbox!
I also discovered that turning the question around and asking them to answer ‘why’ sometimes made all the difference.
I will definitely give it a try but not really sure about the output because I have already tried it several time but she starts yelling if I ask her that magic phrase ..but maybe I wasn’t having the right tone.
I loved this article! As a mommy of twin 4 yr olds and a 6 yr old. I get asked why a lot! I will definitely be trying this. Especially since it’s spring break for 2 weeks!!
When my kids ask why, I usually answer patiently for a while. Then, I respond with let’s discuss it later just follow my instruction and we’ll get back to why. Then, when I’m feeling more patient, I bring it back up and we discuss it. That’s important for me is I MUST always follow up. Children ask a lot of questions because they trust that we as parents have the answers. That is in my mind a high honor.
I tried that “you tell me why” a couple of times and it worked for those two instances but then she will reply to me, “no, mom, you tell me why, tell me mom why?” It drove me crazy so i gave up. I noticed sometimes she asks why but in reality she doesnt know how to elaborate the question. Like when she asks “why is it your birthday today?” I figure shes excited about it so she wants to know why we celebrate birthdays once a year and not every day. Sometimes she gets obsessed with a topic and just keeps asking the same question again and again even though we already gave her the answer. Its annoying. The other day she was having a conversation with another girl and she kept asking her how old she was. The girl and I reminded her she had already asked that question. She got a little upset and when the girl asked her something she had alrrady asked, my daughter answer was “i already told you, dont ask again.” But i think i noticed somethimg. The girl had a slighty older sister and they were dressed the same way. I thought my daughter migjt have been wondering if she was talking to the same person. It happened when she met my twin cousins. She would ask over and over, “whats your name?” Even when she already could tell them apart. She asks a lot and it drives me crazy but i think if i ignore her i could be sending a negative message. I even took her to a develoental specialist and she reassured me my daughter is fine… I think shes anxious just like me
I wish I could do this with my son. He is so smart. However, he has childhood apraxia of speech and while he has so much to say, he just can’t communicate it. He can say the word why though (which I am very thankful for) and I wish I could use this approach.
I’ve started don’t this for only three days now. This morning i woke up to bread all over the counter and in early morning exhaustion i just looked at my son and said why did you make such a mess with the bread? And so his little 4 year old answer to his adult mom was, Can you tell me why??
Just a great morning it’s been.
Thank you for sharing! And I enjoy your writing style and humor. It made for a fun read and I look forward to trying out some of your tips!
Hi there. So iv tried this with my now 4 year old… His response to that is “you tell me why” or “no you say it”
When my grandson asks a why question that I know he already knows the answer to, I usually say “I don’t know.” One day his response was, “Grandma, you don’t know anything.”
I think this is great advice IF the “why” is a genuine question rather than an attempt to circumvent parental authority. Honest to goodness, sometimes “because I said so” is a perfectly legitimate reason! Because God has made me your boss, because He loves you and put someone in charge of you to protect and guide you. My children need to learn to say, “yes ma’am” when given a command. If they truly do not understand why mom is asking them to do something, we can talk about it later. But for their safety and the peace of our home, I don’t need to answer every “why.”
Reduced me to tears too, that last bit. And Daddy becoming Dad….