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The Power of Asking Kids "Why?"
Prompting kids to explain helps them learn abstract concepts.
Hello everyone: I’m slowly returning to normal after my bout last week with Covid. I mean, I was fine, and Paxlovid helped — but I had a lot of brain fog and fatigue in the aftermath of the acute illness, and I’m still not all there, mentally. Also, somehow, despite intending to pass the time by watching silly sitcoms, I instead got sucked into two seasons of The Unforgotten, a wonderful but horribly depressing UK crime drama. I have gone through an ungodly number of tissues and, after six days isolating in my guest room, am feeling like a proper misanthrope.
Still, I wanted to rally today and share insights from the work of University of California San Diego developmental psychologist Caren Walker, whom I spoke with a couple of weeks ago after digging into her research. Walker studies how children come to understand how the world works. Kids are pretty damned amazing for so many reasons, including the fact that they often come to understand abstract details about the world that go far beyond what their senses could have told them. Walker studies how they do this — and more specifically, how different contexts and prompts shape children’s inferences and conclusions.
In recent years, Walker has come to discover that the kinds of questions we ask of children shape how they prioritize different kinds of information — and that certain kinds of questions can help kids learn abstract concepts they might otherwise struggle with. She calls this “learning by thinking.”
One of the questions Walker has been focusing on is: Why? Walker has found that asking kids “why?” in various contexts helps them look for and focus on broad patterns — and helps them use these patterns to make future inferences. The question pulls their attention away from superfluous details they might otherwise focus on at the expense of the bigger picture.
If this all sounds horribly… well… abstract, here’s a concrete example of what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever told your kids fables or stories with a “moral,” you’ve probably noticed that kids often latch onto concrete details at the expense of larger, abstract concepts.
In one study, kindergarteners watched a 12-minute-long “Clifford the Big Red Dog” episode about kids who met a three-legged dog and learned to overcome their initial misconceptions and prejudices by befriending it. The moral of the story, as judged by adults, was that “people with disabilities just want to be treated normally and to be friends.” Many of the kids, on the other hand, believed that the moral was to “be kind to three-legged dogs.” Kids often have trouble overlooking the distracting details of a story to glean the overarching message.
Walker and her colleagues have found that asking kids to explain why things happen gets them to zoom out and understand these abstract concepts. In a 2017 study, she and her team split 5- and 6-year-old kids into two groups and read them stories that had various morals, like “good things come to those who wait” or “anyone can be a hero and help people.” While reading to the first group of kids, the researchers paused and asked the kids “why” questions — like “Why did this event happen?” or “Why is this character sad?” To the other group of kids, the researchers asked yes-or-no questions, like “Did this event happen?” or “Is this character sad?”
Afterwards, the researchers asked the kids questions to test how well they understood the moral of each story. They found that the kids who were asked “why” questions grasped the moral much better than did the kids who’d been asked other kinds of questions.
Why do “why” questions help kids see the big picture? Walker told me that the act of explaining causes kids to pay less attention to superficial details and perceptual features and pay more attention to abstract, generalizable concepts. (It’s also worth mentioning that there’s decades of research showing that explaining is a great way to learn academic concepts — so encouraging kids to explain as they study can help them retain information much better than simply going over notes or trying to memorize facts.)
Asking kids “why” also helps them learn how and why things work. In a 2014 study, researchers showed 3- to 6-year-old kids how the parts of a simple machine fit together and how it worked. The kids then either observed the machine for 40 seconds or were asked to explain how they thought it worked for 40 seconds. The kids who explained, rather than observed, learned more.
In a 2016 study, Walker and her team asked 5-year-olds to observe data consistent with two possible theories, and then to either explain their observations or describe them aloud. The kids who engaged in explaining were more likely than the describers to support the more accurate theory. In other words, explaining helped them better understand cause-and-effect.
Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not kids answer their “why” questions correctly. Even when kids explain things incorrectly, their explanations still help them tune into abstract details in ways that can be useful. “Simply being asked to attempt to generate an explanation regardless of what they actually come up with is the thing that does the work,” Walker told me. (That said, if their explanation is wrong, you can certainly correct them, she said.)
Although asking kids “why” can be useful, I want to point out a few caveats. First: This doesn’t mean parents should never provide their own explanations. When your kids ask you “why?”, it’s perfectly okay for you to answer them, Walker said. “We want to encourage question-asking behavior in the same way that we encourage other types of exploration,” she said. “We should give them answers because they find it rewarding.”
Also, “why” questions aren’t useful in every situation. “Prompts to explain can lead children astray in cases where the sort of ‘broad’ explanation is incorrect,” Walker explained. Sometimes, we instead want kids to pay attention to details and anomalies and not make sweeping generalizations, and in these situations, we might want to ask different kinds of questions — like “why else might this happen?” or "what if some other thing had happened instead?”
To summarize: Asking kids to explain concepts can be useful when we want them zoom out and see the big picture. Pause and ask kids relevant why questions about what they’ve just observed: Why did that happen? Why does this person feel sad? Why did that work or not work? By tapping into kids’ curious natures, we can help them make sense of the vast and surprising world around them.