the why phase

Why do kids go through a why phase of asking question after question? What is a mere adult to do about it? I had some thoughts.

Most questions can be answered simply if you leave out enough details, which makes sense when you don’t know the details. “Why is there wind?” is a physics question, and a correct answer is “Because entropy increases.” Entropy increases because of thermodynamics, which seems securely mathematical so some people think of it as somehow inevitable or necessary. But no math works without axioms, and we could live in a universe without thermodynamics. So a correct answer to the natural small child followup “Why empy?” is “No one can ever know.” Leaving out details can bridge you over to the ineffable in no time.

You might prefer to leave out fewer details. Wind is solar powered, and if little sunlight reached the ground then there’d be little wind at ground level (see Venus). So a more detailed answer is “Because air is clear.” But to explain why air is clear, you may have to fall back on “Can you hold it until I’ve taken degrees in geophysics and quantum chemistry?”

Now do you understand the origin of animism? “The wind spirit so chooseth” seems to be a reliable answer. Maybe the evolutionary purpose of the why phase is to start getting kids hooked into their culture and learning the names of the invisible forces imagined to control things behind the scenes. It’s not about how the world works, it’s about how the world is seen to work—it’s a part of the evolved system of social cohesion, of maintaining the in-group as a cooperating group. Nowadays people don’t know the names of all the invisible forces. That might be within the range of adaptation; Mysteries known only to the Initiated have always been allowed. But maybe science increases the crime rate by existing?

Anyway, I have some confidence that asking “why” at that age is not mostly about finding out why. Maybe it’s a social act, getting attention or finding limits. Try telling a little story or mentioning some related fact (“when there’s a hurricane the wind blows really hard!”) instead of answering.

Original version, August 2014.
Updated and added here February 2021.