Why I said so, that's because.
March 15, 2010 2:56 PM   Subscribe

At what age (approximately) do kids learn the linguistic concepts of cause and effect?

My daughter is five years old and seems to be very sharp and reads at a second-to-third-grade level. Her ability to answer questions about what or who or where is very solid. But when I ask her why, she doesn't seem to be able to answer me. Her answer to "Why?" is almost always "I don't know." I've noticed that it's not just in response to questions; she frequently reverses cause and effect when she's telling us about something.

A good example: "Daddy, we were out of milk because we had to buy more of it." My wife and I haven't been able to get her to understand that she's saying it backwards: "We had to buy more milk because we were out of it."

I know that children understand the concept of cause and effect long before five, but it surprises me that she's having this much difficulty with the semantics of it. Am I expecting too much at this age? I'm not worried, but I am trying to be aware of what's going on with her.

posted by ElDiabloConQueso to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
See pg. 396 of Psychology by Peter O. Gray. (Sample: "Children younger than 6 or 7 years commonly reverse cause and effect, saying such things as 'Billy fell off the porch because he broke his arm.'")

There's at least one entire language (Italian) that doesn't bother to distinguish between "why" and "because" ("Perché? Perché..."), so it's not surprising that young children would blend them together even though we think of them as obviously different words.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:20 PM on March 15, 2010

I don't know when children are supposed to pick this concept up, but you might be able to help her pick up on the semantics with phrasing like this:

"We have to buy more milk. Why? Because we're out of it."

She'll also start to pick it up when she's asking her own "why?" questions.
posted by Anephim at 3:22 PM on March 15, 2010

I teach English abroad, and this year I'm teaching kids between the ages of 8 and 10 at a very low level of proficiency; they've got a lot of vocabulary but very little grammatical meat to hold it together - you'd call them beginners. They find why/because incredibly challenging. In their first language, I hear them mess it up too. They find all the question words hard, in fact, and need to be led through, or at least guided to, the answers.

In a question like this...

When did Mark visit Grandma?
a) At the shop
b) Tomorrow
c) Yesterday

...it isn't at first evident to them that only one answer is possible at all. At the shop will be discarded first, usually, because it's not about "time" in the same way the others are. But picking up that "did" means past and that "when" means time? That's something they find tricky.

So while it's not exactly the same thing, I can say that I have seen dozens of older kids do make mistakes like this in their first language and have trouble picking it up in a second.
posted by mdonley at 3:30 PM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I happened to be flipping through my Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language last night and there was a blurb on this very topic, or at least something that your milk example reminded me of.

IIRC, it was something about how children understand the concept of linking words as words to link clauses and sentences, but the actual meaning of the particular word doesn't really sink in. Therefore, they use words like "and", "but", "because", and "so" interchangeably, which can result in confusion as in your example. (If "so" were used instead of "because", it makes perfect sense.)

I can try to find that bit again and give more clear information, rather than relying on my hazy memory.
posted by ymendel at 3:43 PM on March 15, 2010

My 3 1/2 yr old routinely does this, saying things like "I stomp my foot, that's why I'm mad at you." I don't think I've ever heard him use "why" in the conventional sense. My 7 yr old never did this. Five does seem a little late to still be doing it. Is your daughter a big talker? It's just anecdotal, but my kid who had the easiest time with why/because is also the one who talks pretty much incessantly. It might just be practice.
posted by selfmedicating at 4:30 PM on March 15, 2010

My 6 year old is in an accelerated first grade and they just had a section on cause and effect (in reading comprehension and sentence construction). They typically work one or more grade levels ahead, so most kids wouldn't study that in school until second or third grade.

I've never noticed my kids having trouble with why/because, but I have noticed that they have learned other linguistic concepts at very different paces. For example, my 4 year old has been struggling lately with expressions of probability (maybe, probably, probably not, we'll see, etc.) and the 6 year old never did that. The 6 year old, on the other hand, grasped the concept of time frames (day, week, month, etc.) much later than the 4 year old. One of my younger sisters - who is very bright and very verbal - had a lot of trouble with the language of gender. She would say things like "That woman is driving his car" for a lot longer than it takes most kids to get it down. If your daughter is not having trouble communicating in other ways, I wouldn't worry about it. It probably isn't a sign of anything other than her brain focusing on other things. It will click for her eventually.
posted by Dojie at 5:11 PM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Kids very often know things that they can't express properly.

This is at least in part because planning sentences is hard. It really only starts to feel natural after you've been doing it for ten-ish years. Eventually, we form enough habits that the right thing comes out of our moth most of the time — but until then, it is very very easy to have the right concept in your head but then get distracted or excited and have the wrong sentence come out of your mouth.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:36 PM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

What nebulawindphone says. Give her half a year and you'll likely be there.

Also, as to turning stuff around: I observe time and again that when I'm writing down my research for the first time, I start with the thing that for any reason is most prominent in my mind. Consequently, I almost always have to re-organize my paragraphs later on. I find the same mechanism when supervising other texts [see? I ought to have started with supervision, and then proceeded to "I find this confirmed in my own research."]. I think it's a basic human way of organizing matter: 'first things first' works fine if you have to survive on spontaneous decisions, but it is a lousy rhetorical principle, if you want to create some suspense in your readers/listeners [again: wrong order. Listeners and readers].
So in the milk example, the most important (frustrating) thing would have been that there was no milk. She mentions that first. Then, she is in fact aware of some causality, so she puts in "because". Finally she tells you what action was taken: buy some new milk. It is actually logical and elegant in a fashion.
posted by Namlit at 5:56 PM on March 15, 2010

'In your example, she'd be correct if she replaced the "because" with "so." Maybe rather than lacking the concept of cause and effect, she's simply lacking the word to correctly express it.
posted by kirst27 at 6:26 PM on March 15, 2010

Maybe rather than lacking the concept of cause and effect, she's simply lacking the word to correctly express it.

The OP has already said the same thing in the question. He's asking at what age it stops.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:12 PM on March 15, 2010

Thanks to all of you for your insight.
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 8:04 PM on March 15, 2010

...the right thing comes out of our moth...

Hmm. Case in point.

posted by nebulawindphone at 2:26 PM on March 16, 2010

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