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Ask Away - SmartMom

Ask Away: the Parents’ Role in Child Development

We’ve all seen it. You’re in the park, and there’s a parent pointing to every green leaf and asking their child, “What’s this?” The child answers, either eager to please his/her parent or annoyed by the constant inquiry. Alternatively, perhaps you’re sitting with your child, who happens to be picking leaves and putting them in a pile. You start to feel that parental pang of guilt. Since, of course, along with caring for your child, you should also be educating him on the flora and fauna of the local area. What’s the best way to ask your child questions?  How do you help expand your child’s knowledge for life, instead of enabling them to memorize trivia for the Jeopardy game they may never be asked to play?

What is the parents’ role in child development, anyway? Here are some things to consider when seeking to ask your child meaningful questions:

1. Consider their age.

The “wh-question” effect has been heavily studied by childhood researchers. Around the age of two, identification questions (“what is it?”) are completely appropriate. However, by age two and a half, your toddler can start answering questions about location. By age three, “who” questions are age-appropriate. Last to develop is “when”, as time can be an abstract concept for young children. These questions help promote a variety of language skills needed for school and social relationships with peers. Easy ways to incorporate these questions include:

  • asking about the scenery when on a car ride
  • asking about a book you are reading together
  • asking in reference to your child’s dramatic play


Appropriate Questions

2 years


2 years 6 months


3 years

Who, Why, How Many

3 years 6 months


4 years 6 months and older


(Paul & Norbury, 2012)

2. Consider involving your child.

“Show me and I forget; teach me and I remember; involve me and I learn.” –Benjamin Franklin

Asking your child questions about a shared experience and involving your child in your day can be a wonderful way to promote learning at home. A simple trip to the grocery store with a three-year old can blossom into a learning experience with a few questions and a little conversation. Here are some example questions for involving your child on your trip:

  • “How many different fruits can you find?”
  • “Why do we get in a check-out line when we go to the grocery store?”
  • “Who do you think puts all of this food on the shelves?”

3. Consider the research.

Language is the single best predictor of cognition in children (Rosetti, 1991). Therefore, engaging your child in meaningful conversation is critical to his/her development. When asking questions, try to limit those that elicit only a one-word response. If your child is capable of speaking in longer phrases, think of questions that will get them thinking and talking! Research also suggests that asking questions while reading together can promote more language production (Whitehurst, et al., 1988). So, find time to read together, and ask questions about the illustrations and the storyline. No, it’s not critical that you teach and quiz your child on the Greek alphabet or on species of butterflies. Find ways this summer to ask your child questions while doing your everyday activities–reading, playing, cooking, and driving. You may find that your child is willing to share more when asked, or you may get your child thinking about things they have not yet discovered. Instead of becoming one of those annoying trivia parents, try fostering learning in your home by becoming an effective question asker.

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