Children and Questions

18 03 2010

At the risk of uber-disclosure,  did you know that one type of Libra feminine panty liner not only keeps you dry-and-protected, but also keeps you entertained?

How so? Well, as you instal your liner, by peeling back the paper strip that covers the sticky surface,  you notice that the flip side of said paper strip is covered in bits, or bytes, of random information.

And I mean random. They’re each called “Odd Spot” (no prizes for unpicking the irony), and they’re each numbered, and the numbers aren’t sequential (that would defeat the randomness). Anyway, Odd Spot # 139 reads: “On average, a four-year-old child asks 437 questions a day”.

Well, let’s not get too excited by that. Averages have long lost their shiny patina having been pressed into dubious service for all kinds of lies. All you need is two kids, one a rabid question-asker, the other a silent type, and the so-called averages get ridiculously skewed.

Two kids like that, side by side, may seem to beggar belief. But I swear, on my honour, spit over my left shoulder, that I speak from personal experience. My brother was an intrepid question-asker; I myself rarely spoke, and when I did, it was never to ask questions.

My brother’s specialty was the why-question. He probably went through the others before he got onto “why”. After all, “what” (what are you doing?), “where” (where’s my cricket bat?), “how” (how do you get the top off this thing?), “when” (when’s dinner gonna be ready?), “who” ( who’s getting the big half?) as well as questions without interrogatives (are we there yet?) can take up a large part of the day.

But when you get to the why-question, the parent (or the person doing the answering) may well release a voiceless groan.  You see, they know that it’s a different kettle of fish to the others, the non-whys, which can mostly be dispensed with a few short syllables: they’re information-seeking in the most physical and immediate sense. Able to be quickly satisfied, and once they are, then they disappear into the dust, the very essence of ephemeral.

If the answers to such questions have an extinguishing effect, the why-question by contrast does the opposite – it open things up.  As they’re not always easily answered, the answers mostly lend themselves to more why-questions.

Kids know this. From an early age they know that the why-question can be relied on to furnish the means by which the child usurps the power in the discourse. There’s no easy answer, for the non-specialist parent, to: Why is the sky blue? Why does it rain? Why do you only have a lap when you’re sitting down? Other times you can be bombarded by two why-questions in fast succession, where as much as the speed, there is the very juxtaposition that is itself vexatious.  Why is a dog’s nose wet? might be followed quickly by “why is life unfair?”. You’ve hardly got your head around the physiology of canine respiration, when you’re hit in the face with unbridled existentialism.

Why-questions have another difficulty too. The English “why” actually subsumes meanings that in other languages may often be relegated their own word. For instance, sometimes “why” means what is the cause of/ what is the reason for/what makes this happen/how did it come about? Or even what makes you (how come you) say that?  Why is the sky blue? is one of these. It might be phrased: What causes the sky to be blue? Or what is the process that makes the sky blue? It’s a retrospective question in that it seeks an explanation for what precedes the phenomenon.

But there’s another why, one that is prospective, forward-looking. Why are you planting that, asked  the child as the mother dug a hole in the earth for the basil plant. So that we can have it with our dinners. This “why” has more to do with purpose or planned outcome or result or what flows from what.

To the child using questions to understand the world around them, the  explanations of origins and those of purpose are equally important.

According to family legend, my brother was heavily into his why-phase around the age of four. One day, our father resolved to answer each and every why-question thoughtfully, in an experiment to see how long the boy could sustain the barrage.  It went on all day, and well into the evening, exhausting the father long before the child, whose last question, even when he was tucked up in bed, and on the cusp of sleep, was: Why am I asking why?

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