Thursday, January 10, 2013

On kids asking why and cruel interrogation techniques


A number of months ago, Addison began asking "why?" The word started popping up around the same time that Addison began asking questions about death. And then the two combined into questions about the whys of death. Frankly, it took us by surprise, as our toddler's primary preoccupation up until that point was sneaking up and shouting "Pickleweasel!" gleefully into someone's ear. I kept having to say to her, "Um, let's go talk to mom about that."



For a while -- a very short while -- Addison released her "why" questions in short, singular moments of curiosity. "Why Buzz Yiteyear arm fall off?" Or "Why it dark outside?" She'd follow any answer with a subdued, "Oh," and we'd move on. It was as though she was just tentatively testing the word, like a finger held up briefly to ascertain the direction of the wind. But that didn't last for long. "Why?" has now overtaken "No!" as the most repeated word in our household (though sometimes she combines the two). At first that seemed like a good thing. Yay for inquisitive young minds, right? But what was once a slow-pitched query, a single adorable moment of our child making her first teleological leap towards finding meaning, very suddenly became a rapid-fire, machine-gun-like interrogation that stretched my own adult comprehension of the world to its breaking point. Sure, I know why the sky is blue. Molecules . . . blah, blah, scattering blue light more than red, blah blah.
But why? 
But why? 
But why?
My understanding of most things can stand up to about three or four whys before it breaks down. I can only get so far before it becomes quite apparent just how limited and superficial my own knowledge of the world is, and this, of course, causes me to start circling back on my original explanation, repeating the same ideas, just slightly re-arranged. It's as though my two-year-old has become the "bad" cop, asking me question after question, intent on finding the flaw in my story, trying to catch me in a lie.

I think she's trying to break me.

I am frequently tempted to fall back on the cliche bad-parenting expression, "Because I said so." In terms of offering useful information to my daughter, it's no different than saying, "It just is, now stop asking me questions," but the added benefit is that it would set me up to be the master of my domain, as opposed to some clueless dude just passing through.
Her: Why is the sky blue, daddy?
Me: Because I said so, kiddo. 
Her: Wow.
And then of course she'd start asking me to change the color to pink and purple and I could seal the deal on the whole fraud by waiting until around 5:00 pm to take her outside to see my handiwork.

Part of the reason that it's so exhausting to navigate the repeated "why" question is that I usually try to do a really good job answering the first time. I perform a quick silent evaluation of my daughter's maturity level, and I try to craft a response as simply and elegantly as I can, doing my best to avoid the little cheats of inaccuracy that are sometimes so tempting. It'll probably be a dilemma when she starts asking about physical science and I find myself torn between offering the easier Newtonian paradigm or the more complete relativistic one. I can imagine her coming home after a high school physics class and shouting at me indignantly, "You lied to me!"

Within the first couple attempts of answering my daughter's "but why?" I usually hit the best answer I'm capable of producing. Everything after that is an exercise in diminishing returns as I approach the asymptote that marks the limit of my understanding. With each new "why?" I try to force a new summarization, a different one. My flagging powers of interpretation and reduction and holistic vision are swiftly consumed by each new permutation, and it isn't long before my answers lack the "elegant simplicity" I strive for. By about the seventeenth "why" I am mostly just making snarky nihilistic comments about the universe for my own juvenile amusement.

Like other kinds of fitness, I assume that lots of practice and a concerted effort at improvement will help to postpone the "explanation fatigue" that sets in so quickly for me. I also eagerly anticipate the day that Addison's conversational skills extend beyond asking "why" as many times in a row as my sanity will allow.

10 comments:

  1. Hi Neal,

    Oh no, the dreaded, "Because I said so," makes an appearance. That answer so irked me as a child that I could never bring myself to say it to my girls -- even when I wanted to.

    Because I knew that many of the follow-up 'why' questions were, as you suggest, a way of breaking me, I remember going along with the game for a while. The Q & A with each of my daughters would end with a 50's style gangster voiced "Why you.." as I ambled toward them and scooped them up for a spin around the room.

    Giggles always come in handy.

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    1. Ah, the "distract the kid" method. Depends how single-minded your kid is, probably. But I probably need to employ it more.

      "But why, Da-?"

      "Look! A Clown!"

      Said while staring out the window of a 747. Is that creepy? A little like that scene from the Twilight Zone, I suppose. Clown fears have to come from somewhere.

      I haven't actually said "because I said so" yet, but I'll bet I will, soon, despite my best intentions. Also, harder to scoop up your two year old for a good old spin when you're in the middle of the Nevada desert on a road trip. You do your best, with energy you have available, I guess.

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  2. I'm so thankful K hasn't hit this stage yet, but she has started sprinkling "Why not" into her speech. So far it hasn't really amounted to anything conversationally, but I'm scared because the potential is there.

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    1. I wonder how much the "why" stage depends on the personality of the kid. Addison is, simply put, one stubborn son of gun (as in, refused to close her eyes once in our eleven hour drive two days ago), and just will. not. stop. talking.

      As much as Addison exhausts me, I just as often find myself amused by her. But I think the "why" question and ceaseless chatter gets to Lindsay even before it gets to me.

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  3. I saw something online that said if they asked why and you had already given them an answer then you tell them you already answered that question and you weren't going to answer it again. That has stopped my son a few times from continuing the why's and what's questions. Other times I turn it around on him and asked him why. "Why do you think the monster has three legs?" Or whatever he is asking me. The look of mild shock and confusion on his face is fun to see.

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    1. Yeah, I often try the "turn it around" thing, but my daughter is pretty quick to say, "I don't know. You tell me daddy." And then we get into a heated argument about who is going to tell whom, and Lindsay has to break us up like a referee in a boxing match.

      The thing is, I intellectually like her asking questions - she isn't doing it to be obnoxious, at least not yet, she seems to be legitimately curious and trying to figure her world out. It's just quite a challenge for us to keep up with her.

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  4. Love the cartoon! Kids always ask why. My friend's 4 year old started it on me when I was babysitting her!

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    1. "why?" so neatly straddles the territory between legitimate curiosity and parent-bullying, it makes it really hard to nip that stuff in the bud. When you finally do, you've usually already been had.

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