My older daughter is nearly 5 years old and man, she likes to ask questions. Every day. From the moment she wakes, ’til the moment she drifts off to sleep at night, this kid has her mouth open.
A couple years ago, I thought it was my duty to answer all these questions. I thought it was up to me to share all of my acquired knowledge with her. This sort of talking and explaining is EXHAUSTING! Being the school teacher that I am, I felt it was my all-important job to help her understand, and for me to explain.
But one day, I heard something so refreshing that completely changed everything. I heard someone say “Don’t answer all of her questions, if she asks too many questions, put the question back on her.”
Oh, yes! *facepalm* All of this time and I had been robbing her of opportunities to make sense of her world in her own terms. I had been interfering with her complex thought process. I had been preventing her from the natural learning that comes through misunderstanding and then understanding of things. I had been stealing all of her own ‘lightbulb‘ moments. I had been stomping out the wonder.
So, I stopped explaining so much. Now, when she asks me a question, I looked at the question and how she is asking. If it’s a genuine simple question that requires a simple answer, of course I give the answer. There’s no need to artificially induce investigation when it’s not necessary. If she asks the same question 10 times in a row, and no matter how many times I explain, she keeps asking again and again, then I know she’s not really looking for an answer, but probably has some emotional need to be met.
But, if it’s a question full of wonder, I get her to come up with her own answer. Today, she asked me about gravity, so I told her to jump up and down and I asked her what happened. I didn’t care if she was right or wrong. When she’s old enough for it to matter, she can google the answer and find out for herself, or we can talk in more detail about physics. But, for now, it’s more important for me to engage her thought process. For now, she can simply EXPERIENCE gravity and the explanation can come later.
Every parent has had that moment when their kids say something that blows them away.
One time she asked me, “Where was I before I was born.” I stuttered, “Um… where do you think?” She replied, “Oh, I was hiding in the trees.” That answer is absolute gold and I’ll remember it forever.
Often what happens is that certain questions only lead to more questions. These ‘wonder‘ questions are the ones that are worth leaving for her to sort out. Even if she gets it wrong. Even if she fails to make connections and doesn’t see the big picture ‘yet‘. It’s not the answer to the question that is important, but it’s her fine thought process that is.
Many kids today are too scared to make mistakes. They’re scared to make guesses and to use their imagination because they’re embarassed that they’ll get something wrong. I’ll never forget one day I was teaching a high school science class and I asked the class to write a paragraph explaining something in their own words. A girl in the back, raised her hand and said, “Miss, can you come here?” I said, “Yes, sure, what is it?” She whispered, “I don’t know how to start my paragraph, I can’t even write the first line because I’m afraid I’ll mess up.”
My heart broke at that moment because I realized that the whole class/the whole school/most kids are struggling with this same dilemma. Too scared to use their own thoughts and their own words. I started watching my students and realized that these kids didn’t want to be asked questions. Maybe a few kids were keen, but most had shut that part of their brain off long ago. They simply wanted to be told what to do and to be told how to do it. They didn’t want to use their own expression. They were not stupid kids! Just scared of being told they were doing something wrong.
Ever since I stopped answering my daughter’s questions, I feel like our relationship has expanded. I also feel relieved because now I don’t waste my energy explaining something every five seconds.
It’s exhausting to answer ‘wonder‘ question after ‘wonder‘ question. It’s so much better when either she can come up with her own answer, or we can take the time to explore the possibilities of an answer together. Or, sometimes, there is no need for an answer at all, it’s ok to leave it as a wonder.
The other day, she asked me how many seconds are in three days. Instead of asking Siri on my iPhone, or using my calculator to give her an exact answer, I first asked her to take a stab at it. She guessed, “eight trillion million seconds!” We laughed. She was satisfied with her answer and so was I. One day, when she wants to really know the answer, she can ask Siri herself.