March 30, 2020
By Michelle Wo
Before you can tell them that you got a C- in geography or that you once thought the word XING on the road was pronounced “Zing,” your children will see you as a perfect human knowledge-dispensing machine. And they will ask you a lot of questions.
Why can’t I eat gummy worms for breakfast?
Why are planets round?
Why does your face look like that?
And you will do your best to answer them.
Because of diabetes.
Because of gravity.
Because of ... gravity.
It is wonderful that kids are so inquisitive, and you should freely and eagerly dole out your wisdom for a while, but there comes a point when you should stop. A former math teacher named Steven Clarke explained why on Quora when a parent posted the question: “My toddler asks ‘why?’ to just about everything. How should I handle this?”
In his striking response, which was one of hundreds, Clarke wrote:
Most of the advice here is about how to answer your child’s questions, but that practice reinforces the idea that the way to gain knowledge is to seek answers from an authority. No doubt this is frequently a useful approach, but it’s clear that your child already knows how to do this (since they are asking you a question). It’s much better to take this opportunity to work on the important but much-neglected skill of trying to figure things out for yourself! Ask the child what they think the answer is. Frequently, for simple questions, you (and the child) may be surprised to find that they already know the answer, or at least part of it.
He gave some examples of how turning the spotlight back on the child might work in real-life scenarios, showing that it can be effective whether the kid has some knowledge of the topic or zero clue. He breaks down the idea with the classic “Why is the sky blue?” question:
Child: “Why is the sky blue?”
Parent: “Can you think of any reason why it might be?”
Child: “Umm... maybe someone colored it with a blue crayon.”
Parent: “Maybe. How big of a crayon would they need?”
Child: “A crayon as big as our house!”
Parent: “Wow! That’s really big! Do you think there is a crayon that big? Who would be able to lift it?”
And so on.
By prompting kids to think for themselves instead of giving them an immediate answer (or reading something off the Internet—“Well, you see, light energy travels in waves ..”), you’re helping them gain the critical skill of independent analysis. (More people on Twitter could probably use this skill.) As a parent, it’s also fascinating to learn how the little gears in your kid’s brain are turning.
And it gets you out of the hot seat, too. I hate to break it to you, but there will come a time when your children’s knowledge of certain topics will exceed your own. That’s okay. As long as you’ve taught them how to think through the possibilities and figure out the steps to finding the answer, you will no longer need to serve as a fact-dispensing robot.