Children want answers. They’re new here, after all, and there’s a lot for them to figure out. And parents have answers. We’re really old, after all, and we always seem to know what’s going on. So it’s completely reasonable for them to ask us questions, all the time, about everything. Of course, it might also be completely reasonable (from a child’s point of view) to have us put their shoes on for them all the time: It’s a task that needs to get done, and we are better at it than they are. But as I’ve written before, with young children it is often worthwhile to pay the short-term cost for the long-term gain.
When children ask a question, they often have a guess about the answer. Responding with, “What do you think?” gives them an opportunity to express their initial hunch. If that hunch is right, your confirmation becomes an affirmation of their ability to figure things out. If their guess is wrong (or if they have no ideas), you open a conversation in which you can work together to arrive at the “right” answer. (Note: This might include some research! My son recently asked me, “How do bees make beehives?” We discussed his ideas and my ideas, all of which were wild guesses; then we decided that we needed to look it up to learn the truth, which became a fun little project for us. Now we know that bees drink nectar, excrete wax through their abdomens, chew this wax up, spit it out, and shape it into honeycomb!)
In fact, sometimes it’s good to ask children “why” even when they haven’t asked you anything. For example, after selecting a shady parking spot on a hot day, you might ask your child, “Why do you think I parked here instead of over there?” and then help the child observe differences between the spot you chose and some nearby spot in the sun until they discover the key difference between the two. When you engage the child this way, you’re not just helping him or her understand the world; you are modeling that it’s good to be curious. And in today’s world, as game designer and CMU Distinguished Professor Jesse Schell has pointed out, curious children are the ones most likely to succeed.
The goal here (as in so many of our interactions with children) is to find children’s zone of proximal development, that space just at the edge of their understanding, and to help them explore that space successfully. Asking, “What do you think?” helps you understand, well, what they think—but more importantly how they think. You don’t want to spoil or shortcut their learning process by giving answers before they are ready to hear them (or, even better, discover them for themselves). You may even find that your child has noticed something you hadn’t, or figured out something that hadn’t occurred to you! (A parent I know was having trouble keeping small corn cobs from rolling off the plates as she cleared the dinner table until her three-year-old son suggested that she stand them upright to solve the problem.)
So the next time you’re in the car and your child asks you a question, remember to ask, “What do you think?” Or if they haven’t asked a question and you’re feeling perky, try this one: “Why do you think that tree near the road looks like it’s moving faster than the tree behind it as we drive by?” Chances are, your child won’t yet have fully grasped the concept of motion parallax (this phenomenon), but the ensuing conversation is bound to enlighten both of you.