Asking questions is an important part of your child’s development, but how do you handle the inevitable stumpers?
Did you get me at the baby store? Why are those ants black? What do worms eat? What are stars? Where do dinosaurs live?”
When my son Cole was three, the questions started. At first, I was so thrilled by his budding curiosity that I answered each one eagerly—probably with too much information. But I quickly learned that his questions are not always what they seem. And answering them is not a simple matter of providing facts. It also wasn’t long before the sheer volume of questions wore down my enthusiasm and some of my answers became perfunctory.
That’s when I started questioning myself. How important are these questions to Cole’s developing urge to learn? Was I encouraging him to be passive by providing easy answers? Would I thwart his curiosity if I said I didn’t know the answer or didn’t have time to talk about it?
Some questions my son asks are delightful, funny, and fun to answer. Others are so banal, I can’t think of a thing to say. Some I’ve answered so many times that I can’t stand to do it again. It’s these last two I’d like permission to ignore. But will I hurt Cole’s curiosity by not taking even dull questions seriously?
“The key element to children’s questions is that they are a communication vehicle,” explains Mary Mindess, professor of educations at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and founder and coordinator of the New England Kindergarten Conference. “It’s simply a way of trying to engage the parent in conversation.” Because of this, she explains, the answers you give aren’t as important as simply responding in a positive way. Sometimes it’s easiest just to say, “That’s a good question.”
When it comes to the interesting questions—it’s tempting to launch into a detailed explanation. But kids—like most people—enjoy short answers and get bored if you lecture. From about ages 2 to 7, kids are preoperational thinkers, which means they can’t easily understand abstractions or a perspective other than their own. So answering their questions with a hypothetical, fact-filled scenario confuses them. Short answers are good. But it’s even better to answer a question through illustration.
Giving a brief—-even if it’s incomplete—answer to a question is also a good way to start a dialogue. For example, when Cole asked me if he came from the baby store, I simply answered that babies don’t come from stores. That started a long discussion—one that’s going on sporadically to this day--about where babies come from. I try to keep my answers to one short sentence and wait for more questions. This way, I’ve learned a great deal about what Cole knows already and (often hilariously) how a 4-year old reasons.
“Everybody, but particularly children, needs to construct their own understanding of things through their senses or by adding to what they already know,” explains Mindess. If a child asks a question and you can show her through a science experiment or a picture, that’s a much stronger basis for learning than words.”
If you’ve exhausted all other avenues to answering your child’s questions, the Internet can help with animations, games, illustrations, and Webcams. I recently turned to the Internet to answer one of Cole’s persistent questions: “Why do I breath?” I had already explained it. (He looked puzzled.) I’d shown him a diagram of lungs in a book while he took big breaths. (He liked doing the breathing but still had questions.) When I showed him an animation of lungs operating online (www.innerbody.com), he took a few breaths, laughed, and said, “Oh, I see! Show me blood!”
One of my nagging worries is that if I didn’t answer Cole’s questions correctly, my reputation as a source of information would be fouled and he’d stop asking me. In talking with Mindess and Wallace, though, I realized this is going to happen even if I handle every question perfectly. And besides, what’s important here is our relationship not my knowledge of astronomy. As he grows, Cole will have lots of sources for answers—people, the Internet, books—and he won’t ask me so many questions. That knowledge makes me a little sad. It also helps me enjoy the battery of questions I endure now.
But it also points up another good reason for using today’s questions to establish a rapport. When Cole gets older, he’ll still have to ask me questions like, “Can I go to an all-night party this weekend?” And questions like that—fearsome though they may be--as an important part of our relationship is also crucial.
“There are a lot of questions that children ask that are about permission,” explains Mindess. “Very often those questions have more to them than that. At about 7 or 8, kids are concerned with ‘everybody else goes,’ ‘everybody does this or that.’ Answering these questions becomes about sharing your values. If you permit no discussion on these issues—by just saying no--the child doesn't have any values to share with his friends when he explain why he can’t go, do, or have.”
I know what happens at all night parties and the urge to protect Cole from the temptations--by screaming “Absolutely not!” and locking him in his room till it’s over--will be enormous, I’m sure. Hopefully, I’ll know by then that this question is an excellent opportunity for me to engage him in discourse on the topic of teen substance abuse--or whatever happens to be every parent’s nightmare in the year 2013.
Republished with permission from Ziff Davis Media Inc., the publisher of Family PC magazine