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.