It occurs to me that both of my girls, Mgazi, age 5 and Zaffron, age 7, ask me “why” multiple times a day. What I want to know is this:
Do I really have to answer?
I’ve been giving the whole matter some thought and I realize that my children’s questions usually fall under one of three categories.
Category 1: Technical questions. These are the ones that often stump me. “Why does ice melt?” Usually these questions are asked in the car, thereby thwarting a quick Google search. So, I answer the technical questions the same way each and every time without fail. “You know what, honey, that is a great question for your father.” Done.
Category 2: Abstract questions. “Why is the color orange called the color orange?” I answer abstract questions by throwing the question back at the inquiring child as though I think it’s important for her to come up with the answer on her own. “Hmmm… why do YOU think the color orange is called the color orange?” Of course, I’ve done this so many times that the children see through my ruse. After a typical toss-back, the child will reply, “I have no idea, Mom. That’s why I asked YOU!” There is a sigh and then a grumpy and defeated, “forget it.” The child is frustrated and I do feel a little guilty… for about 15 seconds.
Category 3: Must-Know questions. I look at questions from categories 1 and 2 as questions born from curiosity. If the child doesn’t get an answer, and let’s face it, she usually doesn’t if the question is posed to me, life will go on. Her education or mood may be slightly impacted but I’m pretty confident that there is no lasting damage. But Must-Know questions are a different matter altogether. These are the questions that just might play a role in helping my child “figure out” life. The ones where my answers or lack-thereof could influence how my kid views the world. I struggle to answer these questions. Mightily.
“Why does that little girl on the street not have a house?” or “Why does that person’s face not look pretty?” or “Why can’t you sing in a band if you’re dead?” The Must-Know questions always make me a little sad. Because I know that hard as I try, I won’t be able to give an adequate enough answer. “The little girl on the street doesn’t live in a house because her parents cannot afford to pay rent,” I’ll say. A second “why?” invariably comes back to me. “Well, it’s expensive to have a home, and some people don’t have jobs that pay enough to cover the costs of everything they need.” Pause. “Why?” It goes on and on. It’s heartbreaking. I can explain the simple economics or science but I don’t have a complete understanding of why the world is the way it is. It just is.
So, back to my original question. Do I have to answer each and every time my kid asks a question? Heck no. Depending on the circumstances, I’m perfectly happy to ignore, pass off, or half-answer a curiosity question. It’s a survival technique.
But the Must-Knows… yes. I have to do my best to answer those — especially when they center on values or ethics. Because if I don’t take the time to guide my children on the things that matter, I risk that they might ask someone else.
I got one of these questions from my six year old the other day. He asked, “How do you know if they are bad guys?” Since I was clearly missing the other part of the conversation that was going on in his head, I simply asked, “What?” He then asked, “Sometimes the bad guys act like good guys to fool people, so how do you know if people are really good guys or bad guys?” As I thought about his question, it broke my heart a little. I knew the honest answer was that sometimes you don’t know, and sometimes you get fooled, too. I tried to find that balance between honest and optimistic, and told him, “Sometimes it’s hard to tell, honey. That’s why you need to watch what others do and how they treat people and listen to your feelings and your thoughts so you can decide.” I hope he does.
Beth, I think you did a great job answering that question. One of the things I find myself hating, but at least it’s honest, is answering with an “I don’t know, honey. Mommy simply doesn’t know.”
Possibly it will get easier as they age? You seem to answer my Must-Know questions with ease. Or at least honest humor
Toni, no idea! I’ll let you know. In person. Because in my world, we’ll be having be-monthly dinners for years to come. And we’ll try some new disgusting alcohol combination (whiskey & pickle juice — really?) each one!