Processing Why

Sometime around three years old, every child starts to drive his or her parents batshit crazy with the word, “Why?” It is an inevitable, normal, healthy part of childhood. They are discovering the world around them with a new level of comprehension and want to know the reasons for everything.

Zoey is no exception to this rule. She started asking “why” with great frequency not long after turning three. However, it didn’t take me long to realize that she didn’t ask in the same way most other kids seemed to. At that point in time, we had just gotten Zoey started in preschool and settled into a routine with our days. I began to notice that Zoey and I were having the exact same conversations, in the exact same places, at the exact same time every day. Sometimes word for word. I could predict the exact moment when, while driving her to school, she would make a statement about going up the big hill, or point out the dress shop on the corner. Then she would ask the same question about the dresses in the window, every day. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this was a coping mechanism for Zoey. She was trying to process all the changes in her life – with starting school and OT and giving up naps. Having these conversations on repeat every day, while utterly maddening for me, was a way for her to know exactly what to expect, and where and when, each day. She was attempting to be social with me, but didn’t know how to do it without a script.

Often in the past, Zoey would process out loud. For example, if she saw me set a glass on a table she would ask, “Did you set a glass on the table, mommy?” She knew I had, she had just watched me do it. She wasn’t really asking me, she was processing what she had just seen, out loud. I think she formed these observations as questions as a social coping mechanism: it sounds more normal to ask questions than to just give a verbal running commentary of everything happening around you. Also, while the other person was responding, it bought Zoey extra time to process.

It wasn’t long before “why” made an appearance at the beginning of these questions. Now, though, the questions were less about what Zoey was seeing around her and more parroting back whatever was just said. If I say, “Look Zoey, it’s rainy outside today” she will immediately respond with, “Why rainy outside today?” She isn’t really asking why it is raining today, she is processing what I just said to her. This is especially true any time she hears a word or phrase that is new to her.

The maddening part is that it always catches me off guard. The “why” makes me instinctively answer her question, leading to a verbal loop that can only be described as falling down the rabbit hole.

Me: “Zoey, finish your breakfast. We have a busy day today.”

Zoey: “Why a busy day today?”

Me: “We need to get to the store and back before it is time for you to go to school.”

Zoey: “Why before it is time for me to go to school?”

Me: “So you don’t miss the bus.”

Zoey: “Why so I don’t miss the bus?”

Me: “Because if you miss the bus, you will be late for school.”

Zoey: “Why late for school?”

etc, etc, etc.

Inevitably, it dawns on me that we’re in a downward spiral to insanity and I cut it off by changing the subject. Sometimes, when I’m actually well-rested and paying attention, I can stop myself from answering the very first “why.” I simply wait. If she asks again, then she is legitimately asking “why” about something. Often, if she is just processing out loud, Zoey won’t repeat the question. It may not be a perfect system, but it works for us. It gives Zoey the space and freedom she needs to be herself and do what she needs to do to keep up with everyday life, and it prolongs my departure for the loony bin.

Honestly, I have to say I am incredibly proud of Zoey. You have to admit: what I just described is a pretty sophisticated coping technique for a child of three or four years old to implement. She sees the way others interact around her, and desperately wants to join in, but can’t keep up with the ever-changing conversations at the same pace. So she has invented a socially-acceptable way of slowing down the conversations and even steering them a bit. Pretty darn genius, if I do say so myself.

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