You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook group.
Our topic for today is WHY do children ask questions you KNOW they already know the answer to?
A member of the Parenting Posse– Kristin, asked why her 4-year-old asks questions like “Am I in the tub?” when he’s clearly sitting in the tub. Or “Is it lunch time?” when he’s sitting at the table with food in front of him and he came when you called him for lunch.
Some children do this A LOT, while other children do it very little or never. And it really comes down to two reasons: Control and Security.
So let’s talk about control first.
Typically, children ask questions when they DON’T know the answer to something. And because they’re young kids- there’s a LOT they don’t know the answer to. And typically, that gives us, as the adults, the control over the conversation. “Mama, why is that fish so big?!” and then we go “Well, son, that’s not a fish, it’s a whale. Whales are animals that live in the ocean and are covered in a very thick layer of fat called blubber…” yada yada yada…
When children ask questions that have a really obvious answer like “Am I in the bathtub?” they’re doing it because it allows them to control the conversation- either by being the one who gets to do all the talking or by shocking you into being speechless or getting frustrated. They KNOW the outcome of the conversation. It’s a bit of an attention-seeking technique. THEY get to be in the power position where they KNOW what you’re going to say. My oldest son- who is also four- does this a LOT. “Hey Mama, is this called a bicycle?” “Yes.” “Bicycles have two wheels and pedals and when you turn the pedals…blah blah blah.” It’s an opening for him to talk about something HE wants to demonstrate his knowledge of or a topic that he has on his mind. If I answer “Yes, and that’s a scooter” he’ll usually go “We’re not talking about scooters right now.” and then start into his bicycle diatribe. He wants to control the conversation. And not all kids who are controlling the conversation do launch into a diatribe- sometimes just knowing what you were going to say is enough for them and they just sit there smugly going “I knew she was going to say that!” to themselves. And all in all- it’s not really harmful, and if it gives them a bit of a power rush, for the most part, it’s fine. It’s just this odd little way to gain that control. I often saw a spike in these questions when I was in early intervention when a child had either recently gone through a transition- like they’d changed classes at preschool or they got a new therapist or Dad went away on a business trip. OR when they were anticipating a change or a big event like a trip or a new sibling or a move. And so far it’s holding really true for my own son- he asks a LOT of these questions when we go visit my Mom- which is a bit of an undertaking since she lives two hours away. Or recently my Dad went to the Congo to volunteer, and he left while we were visiting my Mom and when we got home he was asking my husband all these obvious questions like “Are you staying home today?” when it was like- noon- and my husband was in sweats and obviously not planning on leaving the house. Or “Daddy, are you reading me a book?” at bedtime when he was sitting on his bed, book in hand, opened and ready to go. Yeah, I’m reading you a book, bud. So my theory is that children do this as this slightly odd way to regain some control when they’re feeling a bit off kilter.
The second reason is security.
There are two aspects to this- depending on the type of question. Either they’re trying to gauge their intellect, their smarts, against yours. So like- when your dino-obsessed child comes up to you and holds up a toy dinosaur and goes “Mama, is this an Ankylosaurus!?!” Whenever my son does this to me I pretty much always say yes, even if I don’t know, because I’m pretty sure he’s right and he’s asking me a question he knows the answer to. Or if he’s wrong- he’s purposefully misdirecting me- because he DOES know the right answer and it’s like- a test. So either they’re insecure in their knowledge and they’re looking for confirmation from you, or they’re VERY secure in their knowledge and they want to see if you know it. Has anyone had this happen lately with their kids? Dinosaurs, trucks, Disney Princesses- those are like the typical trifecta of questions I know the answer to.
The other aspect is for questions like “Can I put this in the garbage?” where they have garbage in their hand, they’ve put the same refuse in the garbage can MULTIPLE times, and yet they’re asking if this trash they know goes in the bin, should go in the bin. This is a different aspect of security- where they want you to take ownership of a decision they know they should be making. Usually, this happens when you give them a direction like “Go put your shoes on.” and they go “Should I put these shoes on?” YES! That is what I meant by go put your shoes on. PUT ON YOUR SHOES. They’re transferring responsibility for the decision from them to you. They’re insecure in their decision-making skills, they may have some task initiation deficit, some working memory deficit, some planning and prioritizing deficit, and they’re making you make the decision for them so that they’re not liable.
And even though there are two different motivations, I pretty much always try to turn it back on them. “What do you think?” Or occasionally I’ll use a declarative statement if it’s appropriate. “Should I put on these shoes?” “You don’t have shoes on!” Which gives them the information they needed but doesn’t take on the responsibility for their decisions. We want to try and avoid making this a habit- because it generally starts out innocently enough, and but some kids- I find especially the ones who use the intellect confirmation tact and tend to already be on the perfectionist side- get that hit of peptides that makes them feel good when you confirm it for them. You know- that feeling when you were in university or high school and you answer a hard question right in front of the whole class and you’re like “YEAH I DID.” It feels good. But for little kids that can quickly become a focus- where they’re always looking both for that validation and that little hit of feel-good hormones when they get the attention they were seeking… which at an extreme level can create insecurity. Because without getting your content approval, they actually feel physically bad. They get stuck in a dopamine loop and it feels physically awful to be stuck in a dopamine loop, and peptides are uppers. They make us feel good. So it can easily go from innocent inquisitiveness to a habit that’s REALLY hard to break. So I try to stick to being supportive of their curiosity while asking them to answer their own question as much as is possible to encourage critical thinking as being the way out of that dopamine loop.
Sound doable? If you have any questions- by all means, ask away. I know when I start talking about inciting your children to think critically it can feel really overwhelming- so if that gives you a little bit of panic down in your gut- I got you. Go grab my scripts for managing crazy making behaviour- they’re like a springboard into doing things “my way”, and they’re 100% free, so give ’em a shot and report back.