Friday, January 19, 2007

The questions kids ask

As you may know, I have four kids, ages 9, 6, 4 and 4.

One of the things that I didn't really understand about kids before I became a parent is that kids ask a shocking number of questions everyday. Another thing that I didn't really understand is the fact that one of your most important jobs as a parent is taking the time to answer these questions. Because the answers you give are often helping to form your kids' view of the world. It's kind of amazing when you think about it.

Some days, however, you really have to scratch your head. Yesterday I got these three questions on the same day:
  1. What is a troop? I had David and Irena in the car. We stopped at a traffic light. In front of us is a car with one of those magnetic yellow ribbon stickers and it says, "Support our troops". Obviously, if you are 6, and you are getting good at reading and you want to practice, you will read sticker and ask about troops. "What is a troop?"

    So, as the parent, you explain that a troop is a soldier. "What is a soldier?" Not a simple question when talking to a 6-year-old. "Well… a soldier is a person who works in the army." Leading to the obvious "What is the Army?" If you have kids you know that these questions can be endless, so as I dig deeper and deeper into this hole I end up talking about governments, nations, human anger, war, guns, bombs, death, etc. Ten minutes later we arrive at a question like, "But why would a soldier want to die?" Excellent question... It leads you to think about nationalism, pride, duty, freedom, employment, justice, genocide, testosterone, etc. "Why do we have to support our troops?" That leads to thoughts about politics, national interests, debates, terrorism, WMDs, intelligence... and that leads to questions about.... You can see that, honestly, you could spend months talking about all of the side branches to the question "What is a troop?" And the day is just getting started! Fortunately, in most situations like this, you eventually arrive at a destination and the subject changes.

  2. What is an ABC store? We are running some errands, and along the way we pass an ABC store. For those who do not live in North Carolina, an ABC store is the state-run liquor store. It is the only place to buy "hard" liquor in NC, I believe. I'm not entirely sure about that because I don't drink, and therefore I have had no occasion to purchase alcohol in an ABC store, or anywhere else. Which points out another thing -- as a parent, you often realize how much you don't know.

    So I try to answer the question simply. "That's a store where people buy alcoholic beverages." Obviously, "What is alcohol?" is the next question. "Well.." and I answer that question. Eventually my child asks, "Do you drink alcohol?" So I answer honestly, "No, I don't". "Why not?" So I explain that as best I can. My father had a terrible time with alcohol, and I learned all I needed to know about alcohol vicariously. But how do I say that about the kids' grandfather? And the kids have never met my father, because he is dead, because of alcohol. So you work through that whole nest of emotions.

    Eventually the child arrives at the obvious question, "Why does anyone drink alcohol?" Think how complex that is. There are psychological reasons, social reasons, peer reasons, relaxation reasons, self-medication reasons, stupid reasons… "Can I try some alcohol?" Hmmm. "Why do they have to sell alcohol in a special store?" Hmmm. "What does 'drunk' mean?" Hmmm.

    You can see that there are a huge number of decisions that you are going to make as you answer a string of questions like this, and you are going to end up flavoring your answers with your world view and experiences to some degree, and your kids are going to pick up what you say and use that information in forming their own world view, to some degree. Either accepting it as truth (the predominant mode of young children) or completely rejecting it (a frequent mode of teens).

    Thankfully you arrive at your destination eventually...

  3. So we are in bed, and I am reading the kids a book. It is a nice, quiet, safe time. We are reading the book, "The Black Stallion", which is a cool story that the kids have never heard before and they are really enjoying it. And we come upon the description of the Black Stallion's new friend, who, the book is so kind to mention, is a gelding.

"Yes my little girl."

"What is a gelding?"

I went into fatherhood with a (semi) clear idea of how expensive kids were going to be. I knew they needed clothes, food, doctor visits, and so on. What I didn't have a real emotional grasp of was how much time kids take... it never stops. That seems obvious, but having kids is one of those things that I don't think a person can understand until they do it.

I always faced up to my kids questions as directly as possible; it was my primary goal to never let them think they couldn't ask me something. I wanted to reinforce that when they were young, so that when they became teens, they could feel comfortable that I was a good source of information. Of course, they went through the inevitable period of thinking I was a feeble-minded dinosaur, but at least they never stopped talking to me, which was good.

I think the greatest gift we can give our children is to answer their questions, and to encourage them to ask. It is through asking questions that we learn, and grow. And it's equally important to be unafraid to anwer their questions with a truthful, "I don't know." Our children may very well be the ones who find the answers to the questions that no one yet knows the answer to.
I'm sure that your curious kids will grown up to be like you. Heck even start their own HSW website!
Teaching the ability to find the answers is more powerful than teaching the answers.
>Teaching the ability to find the
>answers is more powerful than
>teaching the answers.

Except that now all the answers are on the internet. Who would turn a 6-year-old loose on the internet to look up "gelding"?

How does the kid look up "troop" in the car?
I think the greatest challenge that we face as parents is not how what we teach our children-it's listening to our children and becoming better adults for them. In return we get the opportunity to mold and design these future adults. I know I am a better person for knowing my children, and the world will be a better place if and when I ever let them seperate from me to the real world! (boys ages 17, 13 & 11) and wow- what a ride. I have reflected so many questions over the years. The best one I think was "Mommy, why don't you pee standing up?" - I of course told them that my peeing parts were tucked in the Bat Cave...
I would have answered this question in an entirely different manner. "A troop is a group of individuals moving together in a common direction or purpose, like a troop of monkeys, or a circus troop." This answer might have gotten a giggle and accomplish the intended effect of steering the interrogation elsewhere less controversial.

Your six-year-old may be curious about the outside world, but question-asking at that age is an attention-getting strategy.
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When I asked my mother "What is an ABC store" when I was 5 or 6 she answered, "It is an Adult Beverage Control store. They sell drinks that are for adults." Adults did all sorts of weird things and I guess that answer was good enough for me.

The name "ABC" if awfully compelling to a young child. In second grade, we made a model of town. I suggested we should have an ABC store. I have vague memories of my mother making an embarrased apology to the teacher.
On another question, you changed your RSS feed without telling anybody. I just noticed this bad URL in my blogroll,, and reupped with the new RSS feed.

There are 35 other Bloglines users that are still trying to use that URL. Forcing a 302 with your current feed address at the bad URL will point Bloglines to the correct URL. Just don't ask me how to do it! LOL!
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As a mother, I want to give everything my daughter's want. To give him proper guidance and education. Every stages of her life I want to be part of it. I guess, your child was so smart to ask this kind of question. I hope they will have a good future. I know it will because you are the mother of these kids.. :)
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