Children ask questions… a lot of them. In fact, the incessant ‘why’ questions of a toddler are well documented in the discourse of parenthood and are often one of the most recognizable and predictable features of small children. Why this, why that, why everything. From approximately ages two to six, children want to know why, why everything, literally all day, every day.
It takes a tremendous volume of tolerance to withstand this barrage of whys day after day. Most why questions of a child orbit the more trivial and inane aspects of daily life and yet you want to answer them if for no other reason than to let your child know that you are listening—that you’re valuing their presence.
However, you can turn this daily cycle of ‘why’ questioning in your own fun filled educational endeavor by remembering that at any given moment, a child is only four to five ‘why’ questions away from unearthing the quantum mechanical origins of existence. Take as an example, a simple scenario about why a window in the house is open—a run-of-mill occurrence that a child is curious about.
“Why is the window open?” my 4-year-old asks.
“Because it’s nice outside,” I answer.
“Why is it nice?” he responds.
“Because the sun is out,” I answer.
“Why is the sun out?” he continues.
“Because it’s daytime,” I respond.
“Why is it daytime?” he asks.
This last question is a critical one, perhaps the most critical. The question, ‘why is it daytime’ is a pivot point for the parent, a meaningful one. It is significant for two reasons.
It is the fourth consecutive ‘why’ question in an ongoing Q&A about why the window is open. The fourth question is important because it is usually the point where a parent starts to lose their willingness to continue answering ‘why’ questions thoughtfully and, sometimes, politely. The relevant answers to these ‘why’ questions, initially concerned with why the window is open, has moved to a point where they are now requiring truly educated answers. Again, the fourth question is often the threshold between simple explanations of the mundane and the potential to really start getting into the rudimentary principles of quantum field theory. If allowed to run its course for, say, three or four more ‘why’ questions, we’d quickly be discussing inflationary cosmology and the theoretical claims of universe creation.
We return to our fourth question, “Why is it daytime?”
“It’s daytime because it’s no longer night,” I tell him.
“Why is it no longer night?” he presses.
“Because the region of the Earth in which we reside has spun back towards the sun,” I return, confident that this will be the final ‘why’ question in this sequence.
“Why?” he asks plainly, this time without either restating the answer or elaborating in any way.
“Because the Earth rotates,” I say.
“Why does the Earth rotate?” he asks.
“Because the cloud of hydrogen that formed our earth 4.5 billion years ago required angular momentum as it collapsed from mutual gravity that resulted in a lingering inertia in the planet produced by the leftover atoms,” I answer triumphantly, iPhone in my hand open to Google.
Although this last answer required a run through Google, it was a successful answer and although it still led right into another why question, given the advanced level of the answer it becomes possible for the answerer to become the asker.
“Why?” he again asks.
“Why what?” I reply.
“Why whatever you said,” he responds, now starting to lose interest.
And that concludes the Q&A, as the child (age 4) has no rebuttal to my “why what” reply.
Although this series of questions and answers to a simple inquiry about why the window was open took several minutes and a Google search, the exchange accomplished several things.
Firstly, it respected his barrage of inquires as legitimate and reaffirmed his value as a person and even a potential interlocutor, despite his relative age and brain development.
Secondly, it kept me engaged with him without frustration or dismissiveness.
Finally, it revealed to both of us a much more important answer about the planet on which we live and although he may forget the answer as quickly as a goldfish forgets when they were last fed, education isn’t about memorizing individual facts and figures, it is about the cumulative effect that years of absorption have on the mind and the neurological processes of a brain.
Surely most parents will attest that there simply isn’t enough time in a day to treat the ceaseless monsoon of childhood ‘why’ questions in such a manner. However, when time allows, answering the ‘why’ questions of a child patiently and truthfully will do just as much for you as it will for them. You’ll both be better off because of it and maybe, just maybe, you’ll uncover the mysteries of existence in the process.