“Kids are always asking questions,” the article about a study conducted by a Harvard researcher says. “But the best thing you can really do for your child is to not answer their questions. You need to ask the question back to them.” It claims that by not answering questions empowers them “to realize they know things too” and understand that there is not always one correct answer. That if you respond by asking them a question they will learn how to search out answers for themselves instead of “being handed” answers.
Wait a dag-nab minute. That wasn’t my experience and I’ve got questions.
Does that mean from birth? How old should our children be before we take them to Google or tell them go look it up for themselves? Does it mean that our children need to doubt us earlier, before they become teenagers, because we are only one source of information? That if we answer their questions we’re manifesting superiority? That we can readily discern truth through broad inquiry at two, five, or ten, or that we should have to? Can’t a parent’s answers be correct? Isn’t a parent’s job to teach their children? Should children consult panels of experts and how will they know if panel members are unbiased and trustworthy?
Some of these questions may seem facetious, but it seems that the study (or at least the article) attempts to disempower parenting without answering these questions. Or is the author’s attempt to get me to think deeper about the subject? Call me cynical, but I doubt it. While I agree that we must be very careful not to create passive recipients of information and non-thinkers, the study paints this whole topic with too-broad a brush.
To have been denied answers to my questions as a child, to have been given responsibililty for seeking “correct answers” and for determining their veracity would have suppressed, not nurtured, my curiosity. I can’t remember a single time my questions were rebuffed and rather than hinder, that urged me on. While it’s true you can create non-thinkers by answering every question, you can also create an aversion to asking because answers are perceived as not readily available to us or too hard to find. Our job as parents and grandparents is to innoculate kids with curiosity.
I got my inquiring mind from my father who always had an answer to every question I asked. Dad understood the importance of answers because he was a man who always needed to know why, an animal scientist. Whether the answers he gave were wrong or right, I don’t remember. What I do remember is that there were answers (or at least a process to develop hypotheses and eliminate non-answers). That caused me to notice things and to ponder why. Dad’s answers activated a critically important reward system in my brain, ensuring I’d be a knowledge hunter-gatherer for life. Like pulling the handle on a slot machine and hearing coins tumble, when I asked a question I got an answer. That felt good so I asked another question. Dad innoculated me with curiosity.
As my brain developed, I realized there were other sources of information, some of which contradicted Dad’s. That was, appropriately, when confidence in my own reasoning ability grew. It happened organically as I grew up, not one minute before I was ready. He never weaned me off answers to teach me that I could or should learn it myself. He simply taught me to think, to ask questions, and to expect answers.
Thinking doesn’t need to be hard. Writer Norman Maclean nailed it in A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. “All there is to thinking” he wrote, “is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.” Dad saw a briskly flowing mountain stream merging with the waters of a crystalline lake and wondered, are there many trout in that lake? [Anecdotal evidence later emerged that there were.] He watched sheep eating in a pasture and wondered what plants they eat and what they avoid. [His questions and others led to the invention of the esophageal fistula which led him to become a Fulbright Scholar who traveled to Africa and many other countries to do further research and teaching.] He wondered how a rancher can reduce lamb mortality in light of limited options for control? [After research, he leaned toward legal lethal methods like chocolate, toxic to dogs and coyotes.]
Whether others agreed with his answers, questions, it turned out, were the mother’s milk of problem-solving. And solving problems is addictive.
Most kids develop curiosity by asking their parents why. Answers that go beyond “Because I said so!” excite developing brains to ask more questions. A learned-propensity to avoid digging deeper – blame bad parenting or MTV or drugs and alcohol or whatever – is a big reason why we’re in turmoil these days. We’ve become a nation of passive thinkers, addicted to the pablum doled out by people who want us to buy what they’re selling, to manipulate and intimidate. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all stopped to think? To ask questions and seek real answers?
From top to bottom we are narrow-minded, empowered, and opinionated people whose interest and knowledge don’t go much deeper than we are willing to scratch with our fingernails. We are a nation of reactionary lemmings, too lazy to ask questions or seek answers. And I fear that this is only the begining.
Let’s start thinking deeper and encouraging our children to do the same. Ask and answer questions. Demonstrate that scratching the persistent itch of curiosity is satisfying. You won’t ruin them, destroy their self-confidence, or shut them down. Kids eventually grow up and question everything around them, including (and especially) their parents. Believe me, there’s no need to hurry that along.