As an adult, even before I had children of my own, one of my favorite and least favorite language milestones centered around the word ‘why’. If you’ve ever spent more than 1 hour with a 3-5 year old, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  It’s the never ending question.  Why? And most of the time adults get caught up in the sequence of answering the ‘why’ only to be asked ‘why’ again…thus continuing the cycle.

The word ‘why’ falls into the category of ‘WH-‘ questions.  There are 2 types of questions in the English language:

  1. Yes/No
  2. Wh- questions
    • What
    • Where
    • When
    • Who/Whom
    • Why
    • How

The Wh- question is an interrogative word or question word that is a function word used to ask a question.  ‘What’ and ‘where’ are actually the first 2 ‘Wh’ questions that a child can both answer and ask.  The understanding of these questions usually begins around 1-2 years of age.  A 2-year old should be able to answer a question such as “what is that?” or “where’s the ball?”.

I remember this past holiday season watching my daughter begin to understand ‘where’. The family was sitting around the table and one by one we asked my daughter, ‘where’s Mommy?’, ‘where’s Daddy?’, ‘where’s Papa?’, ‘where’s Grammie?’, ‘where’s Grandpa?’.  My daughter responded by pointing to or looking directly at each individual that we asked her about.  It was truly wonderful to watch.  I could almost see the little wheels in her head turning with each question.

The ‘why’ phase begins around 2-3 years but is actually the most difficult ‘Wh’ question to master…for this reason, it usually continues for a LONG time.  I remember when my niece went through this phase.

Niece: Where’s Bailey (my dog)?

Me: At home.

Niece: Why?

Me: Because that’s where he lives.

Niece: Why?

Me: Because he’s my dog.

Niece: Why?

This conversation could continue like this for a while…until I figured out the wonderful way to stop it…

Me: You tell me why…

Mind exploded…suddenly I shifted the pattern and my niece would have to think of her own explanation, which usually entailed her repeating once of my answers back to me.

These seemingly simple questions can actually be very difficult for some children.  In my practice, both the Occupational Therapists and Speech-Language Therapists are always looking to see if a child is able to answer ‘Wh’ questions. They are the questions that lay the groundwork for a child to participate in a conversation, and allow children to demonstrate knowledge and collect information about themselves and their world. If a child is experiencing difficulty with these questions and doesn’t seem to be catching on to the concept, Speech Therapy is often recommended.

As a parent, you can always work on these questions while reading with your child.  Right now my daughter’s favorite book is The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  As we read each page, I stop and ask questions…’where is the plum?’, ‘where is the caterpillar?’, ‘what is the caterpillar eating’.  She also loves the Baby Einstein Cards Language Discovery Cards.  We hold up 2 cards, for example the apple and the bear, and ask her ‘where is the bear?’ She studies both and points to the card she thinks I am asking about.  Of course at only 20 months old she frequently chooses the wrong image, but she is so engaged and loves the activity.  Again, I see the wheels turning and for now that’s all I need. J