Children love to ask why -- but you may not always have the answers. We consulted the experts to get smart responses for some common stumpers.
1- Why Aren't There Any More Dinosaurs?
Tell your kid About 65 million years ago an enormous asteroid collided with the earth and changed everything on the planet. The dinosaurs couldn't adapt and eventually died out, making way for new animals, ones that were better suited to this other climate.
What you should know "Dinosaurs are vivid proof that the world was once very different, which gets a child's imagination running wild," notes Matthew T. Carrano, Ph.D., curator of Dinosauria at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. "Dinosaurs can often hook kids into broader scientific concepts," he says, so take this opportunity to talk about, say, the environment or evolution. For example, explain that dinosaurs' fossils show that they were the ancestors of today's chickens, pigeons -- even ostriches.
2- Why Are There So Many Languages in The World?
Tell your kid Thousands of years ago, people in different communities all over the globe invented their own words to describe their lives, and that's why today people from the same area tend to speak the same language and other people may not. Languages also evolve over time: Our own has changed so much that if you heard someone speaking English as it was spoken 500 years ago, you'd have trouble understanding what he was saying.
What you should know Hearing someone speaking a foreign language can strike young children as odd -- even unsettling. "But the earlier we help kids understand what they can learn from other cultures, the more likely they'll seek out new kinds of people," notes Jillian Cavanaugh, Ph.D., associate professor of anthropology and archaeology at Brooklyn College, in New York. Remind your kid that people from other cultures might think the way we talk is unusual, too, and point out that some words she uses often come from other languages, like ballet (French) or pasta (Italian).
3- Why Don't We Want Others to See Our Private Parts?
Tell your kid Because we use them for things we don't do in public, like going to the bathroom -- that's why we call them private parts. It's also why we cover them with a swimsuit at the pool or close the door when we use the potty. We don't show our private parts to anyone except Mommy and Daddy or a trusted adult, like a doctor in her office. If someone tries to touch them or makes you uncomfortable, please tell me.
What you should know "This is a great chance to model a calm, normalized attitude about the body," assures family therapist Hal Runkel, author of ScreamFree Parenting, so remain matter-of-fact. Young kids lack inhibition, he explains, so take this opportunity to set some safe boundaries about what body parts are off-limits to outsiders.
4- Why Is That Man Homeless?
Tell your kid I'm glad you noticed him. There are lots of reasons people become homeless. He may have lost his job or become too sick to take care of himself or his home. In any case, we should treat him with respect. We should also offer help for the homeless when we can, by doing things like donating to a shelter or collecting winter coats.
What you should know "Children have a limited frame of reference and believe everyone lives just like they do," says Brenda Nixon, author of The Birth to Five Book. They need honesty but also reassurance: They may worry that they'll also become homeless. "Kids often show amazing compassion," Nixon adds, so brainstorm together about how your family can lend a hand.
5- Why Do People Get Sick?
Tell your kid Usually, it's because of germs. These tiny critters can find their way into our body through the air we breathe and things we eat, or when we touch our mouth or eyes without washing our hands. Most of the time, germs don't affect us, but sometimes our body can't fight them off -- and that's when we get sick. Occasionally, people also become ill because their body isn't working properly, but you can't catch those kinds of sicknesses. Fortunately, in most cases, resting and taking medicine can help your body heal.
What you should know It's important to draw a distinction between common conditions like the flu and more frightening ones like cancer. "Children want to know that they're going to get better," says Parents advisor Darshak Sanghavi, M.D., author of A Map of the Child: A Pediatrician's Tour of the Body. "Explain that most serious diseases usually don't happen until old age. The illnesses kids catch typically can be easily treated." While you're at it, promote healthy habits such as washing hands frequently to ward off germs.
More Answers to "Why?" Questions
6- Why Do Grown-Ups Sometimes Cry When They're Happy?
Tell your kid People may feel something so strongly that they just have to let it out. When kids feel happy they usually jump up and down or yell, but grown-ups have more complicated emotions -- and when we're really happy, we can also be just a little sad at the same time. Sometimes for adults, crying just happens.
What you should know When you cry out of happiness, it's usually because something feels bittersweet, like your kid's first day of kindergarten (you're so proud -- but she's growing up so fast!). Kids don't have the same range of emotions, so this concept can baffle them, Dr. Sanghavi says. Use this conversation to encourage your kid to express feelings in words. Emphasize that crying is okay -- but it's important to say what's wrong. "Understanding why you have a particular emotional response will also help your child become more sensitive to others' feelings," he adds. So tell your child that if she ever sees you crying, she can ask if it's because you're happy or sad.
7- Why Can't I Stay Up As Late As You Do?
Tell your kid Not only does your body need a break after running around all day, your brain needs one too. It's busy exercising as you think and discover new things. Since you're so active and learning so much more than adults each day, you need extra time to rest. You go to bed a little earlier so your body and mind can work even better in the morning.
What you should know Contrary to popular belief, our body and brain don't "grow" while we sleep. But scientists know that rest is essential to healthy mental development; when kids get less than ten hours a night, they're more irritable and don't learn as well, Dr. Sanghavi notes.
8- Why Do the Kids Next Door Have So Many More Toys Than We Do?
Tell your kid It's up to adults to decide what they do with their money, and our neighbors may choose to spend more on toys than we do. It's easy to feel jealous, but having more stuff won't make our family happier or better than any other.
What you should know This might sound like a loaded question, but look at it as an opportunity to start a conversation about the concept of money: where it comes from and how your family opts to spend, save, or give it away, suggests Sharon Lechter, founder of payyourfamilyfirst.com, an organization dedicated to improving financial literacy. "Explain that everything has a cost, then describe what it is you and your partner do every day to pay the bills," she says. Discuss the difference between want and need, and, with an older child, talk about ways that he can make money of his own, such as by offering to wash a neighbor's car.
9- Why Do I Have to Invite That Girl to My Birthday Party?
Tell your kid Because if you don't, it might hurt her feelings, and in our family we always try to be kind to others. Even if another kid seems different from you or you're not into the same things, it's important to include her. You don't have to become close friends, but imagine how you'd feel if she threw a party and invited everyone in the class but you.
What you should know Kids can start to form groups and exclude others as early as preschool -- but combating this behavior now can have a major impact down the line, says Parents advisor Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. "If you can teach your child at an early age to imagine how others feel and consider how she can help them, you'll raise someone who's not only less likely to bully, but more likely to stop a friend from being cruel," she says.
Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Parents magazine.