Someone once told be about a comic - I probably don’t have it exactly right, but here is the main idea (I wish I had the pictures to go with it):
A man and his son are in the car.
From the backseat the son asks, “Dad, why are leaves green?”
The dad launches into an explanation about chlorophyl, pigments, photosynthesis.
The boy responds with, “Dad, are you talking to me?”
I often think of this comic when my kids ask me questions and I try to figure out if and how to answer them. Most of the time, I’m not convinced my kids are really seeking information, at least not when they are under five years old. If they are seeking information, it is not the adult kind - factual and complex - that best meets their inquiry.
The ‘why?’ stage. Most children go through this stage. It is cute and amusing at first, then a bit tiresome, then relentless. In my experience, my answers are never satisfactory, they only lead to the next ‘why’, which can quickly turn into an empty why-because back and forth. It seems to me that this stage isn’t about information, but rather about figuring out the dynamic between the adult and the child: Does my mom really know everything? Does she start talking to me every time I ask ‘why’ ? How many ‘whys’ do I have to ask until she finally says “I don’t know!”? I often get the impression that the child is more interested in the interaction than the answer. And at some point, responding to everything with ‘why’ may become such a habit that the child says it without any interest in either the interaction or the answer — like when Katherine would absent-mindedly say ‘why’ without even looking up from what she was doing and wouldn’t even notice whether or not I responded.
As children get a little older (though I’m still talking under five) their questions become a little more sophisticated, but even at this stage I don’t think the questions indicate a request for an answer, at least not my answer. Rather, I think it is a request to confirm what they think is the answer. I remember a specific exchange I had with Katherine (when she was about two) that made me evaluate what her questions were really about:
Katherine was gazing out the window and asked me, “Mom, where do the birds come from?” As I started organizing my response about how birds hatch from eggs, how eggs are laid from mother birds, why birds come from eggs, and the whole philosophical question of where the first bird came from, I suddenly wondered how on earth I would explain all of this to a two-year-old. Rather than figure it out, I opted not to answer and simply asked back, “Where do you think they come from?” Katherine promptly answered, “From under the fence. I think they come in under the fence from that yard over there.”
She didn’t actually want me to answer, and she certainly wasn’t asking for the information I was about to give her! She already had the answer worked out and it was as if her question was really asking, “Do you agree with me?” If I had answered with information that was relevant to me, I would have missed her point, and her explanation, completely.
Of course there are times when Katherine or Clara do have a genuine question about something. For example, Clara asked me why leaves change color in the fall, and I think in this case she did want my answer. But if I were to give her my answer, it wouldn’t be anything like the creative, imaginative one she could come up with on her own. I’m constrained by knowledge, she is not. Soon enough her logic and reasoning skills will kick in* and providing her with factual answers will be appropriate. But for now I much rather my two-year-old have fun with her imagination than (try to) understand the real reason why a leaf changes color.
So I generally don’t answer my kids’ questions. Instead I respond with “Hmm, I wonder” or “What do you think?” More often than not I get a very detailed, well-developed answer that gives me a glimpse of how their young minds work.
*Those logic and reasoning skills do kick in. Katherine (5 1/2) now questions whether eating carrots really does make her eyes sparkle. A clear indication that she is ready for real answers to her questions.