Chapter Two - Questioning.1

Parenting for an Age of Information

Chapter Two - Questioning

"Why does it get dark at night?"

"Where does the sun go?"

"Where does God sleep?"

"Can the Sand Man be a woman?"

Children begin life with profound questions. So much needs explanation. Much like a huge jigsaw puzzle with its pieces scattered across a living room carpet, the world is confusing and hard to put together. Questions help make meaning out of what seems like nonsense.

Your daughter or son starts asking questions as soon as words begin . . .

"More?" (Upon finishing up favorite food.)

"Da-Da?" (Upon seeing a strange man.)

And then the questions become more complex as the toddler starts joining words together into phrases and sentences . . .

"Boddle all gawn? (Bottle all gone?)"

"Mummy sad?"

"Mummy come back?" (Upon arrival at child care.)

Why is questioning so important to your child?

One can never know all the right answers, especially in a world of rapidly changing information. However, with specific tools, one can usually fashion the right question to get some answers. Questions are tools of thinking that can be modified and molded to fit shifting situations. Knowing how to fashion questions may be more important than knowing all the answers.

We parents want a child who is an independent learner, one who asks essential questions and persists with such questions until insight takes the place of confusion. We want a child in whom a sense of wonder flourishes - a child whose curiosity springs forth with full vigor from moment to moment as the world presents a feast of opportunities for exploration and discovery.

Unfortunately, when your child goes to school, questions may mostly come from teachers. School is sometimes a place where children may memorize and repeat answers provided by adults and textbooks. While there are exceptional schools and exceptional teachers, researchers paint a fairly gloomy picture of the kinds of classroom questions which prevail.

Many teachers and some school systems prize student questions, but if your child's does not, you can encourage questions at home from the very beginning. You can teach your child to be a skillful questioner as well as when to use this powerful skill. Children must be skillful and savvy enough to "survive in their native land."

Questions are essential tools for real problem-solving. When faced with surprising, intriguing and baffling challenges as a child or adult, we will find the most effective solutions and answers by applying good questioning skills.

Solving the unfamiliar and surprising problem is like untangling a fishing line that has become snarled in a seemingly hopeless knot. You pull here first, then there. Through trial and error, hunch and intuition, you begin to make sense of the mess. Problem-solving demands a similar spirit of inquiry and lots of questions. It is the questions which drive the process - What happens if . . .? How about . . .? What would make this more . . .?

Children must learn that one question leads to other questions, that there are families of questions and that there are questions within questions. If your child becomes a skillful questioner, he or she will find the many different pathways to answers easier to follow. Questions will help clear away the baggage, the prejudice and the "conventional wisdom" which often obstruct vision, restrict the way to a single path and hide good solutions.


Raising a generation of good questioners begins at home with the atmosphere you set for your children and the response you give to their questions. Are far-out, off-the-wall questions greeted with enthusiasm and encouragement? Do you take the time out to nurture the curiosity of your daughter and son? Are you willing to roll up your sleeves to help explore questions you cannot answer? Do you share your own curiosity and your own questions with your children, including the unanswerable questions with which most of us struggle throughout a lifetime?

Your attitude toward questions and questioning, along with the opportunities you provide, will do a great deal to shape the questioning behavior of your children. Even if you live where the schools do not prize this kind of inquiry, you can teach your child to ask questions all through life if you model good questions and welcome them when they come your way. In this section you will find specific suggestions for how to help your children develop the questioning skills that will make them effective and resourceful problem-solvers during the next century. You will know you have been successful when you find wisdom flows "out of the mouths of (your) babes."


Most of us promise never to answer a child's why question with because I said so. Yet most of us tire at one time or another of the seemingly endless series of questions which can flow from the mouths of our children. No sooner than we have answered one extraordinary question than the child is ready with an even more challenging follow-up. It can seem like a presidential press conference.

How do children sense so accurately when we will not have the time or patience to answer a long string of questions? Sometimes it actually seems as if they have waited for the parent to be deeply involved in a newspaper, wood-working project or delicate bit of food preparation before asking, "Why does Santa Claus still use reindeer?"

Remembering our own promise to be patient, we make a weak stab at an answer like, "Because it's a nice tradition," carefully keeping our eye on the sauce we are stirring. Like any good news reporter, the child senses empty rhetoric and probes further. "But why not use a helicopter? Wouldn't that be faster?" Really concerned about our sauce boiling too hard, we tend to give in all too quickly. "What? Oh, yes. You have a point, sweet heart." The child is apt to stare for a while, hands on hips, at the raised newspaper or the body hunched over the saucepan, and then shrug, sigh and depart frustrated with the parent's lack of engagement.

"Why?" questions arise for many reasons at many different times. The pattern parodied above probably involves more than the child's curiosity. Questioning is more than a device to satisfy curiosity. It also serves to gain attention, to put someone on the defensive or to stir things up.

Sometimes family members feel that sharing thoughts, feelings and curiosity is a waste of time because nobody really listens or engages in a way that the speaker feels heard. Unfortunately, research on family dialogue in the 1980s showed that few parents spent much time talking with their children each day and even less time listening.

Grab those "why?" questions early in your child's life and seize them as an opportunity to listen. These questions may be the opening to what can be a delightful, prolonged joint search for meaning that will endure past the days of high school graduation and marriage well into the days of grandchildren and new generations. The gulf between child and parents normally associated with the teenage years actually may have its roots in early childhood when the foundations for mutual exchange of ideas are not firmly established.

Before you answer your child's question, breathe deeply, pause and take the time to figure out what might lie behind the question. Answer the question with a question . . . "Why do you ask? What made you ask that? Where did that question come from?"

In each and every exchange with your children, you have the opportunity to accomplish two important goals. First, you can support them in their most compelling work - figuring out the world for themselves. They need help in developing confidence that they can make sense of the world. Secondly, you can help develop the questioning skills which will allow them to invent their own futures. By teaching them to ask both answerable and unanswerable questions, you prepare them psychologically and practically to take charge of their lives.

Your real purpose is not to answer questions but to welcome them. You want to explore the thought behind the question and to reward the child for showing curiosity. It is the beginning of a collaborative search and the development of a pattern to sustain it. Think of your child's questions as a serve in tennis. You would hardly return it with a smash.

Because most of us were raised in schools where answers were prized more than questioning or thinking, we must unlearn old behaviors and resist the temptation to blurt out some facile explanation. Toy with the question. Try out your backhand or your spin. Work on your form. Enjoy the exchange. Forget the killers and put-away shots. Concentrate on smooth ground strokes. See if you can hit it back and forth a dozen or more times. Show your child that questions are nearly as welcome in your home as hugs. If you work at your family questioning game, you will find that questions and hugs will both increase in frequency and quality.


"Playpen" is an oxymoron. Make the world your child's playground. Questions feed upon rich and varied experience - plenty of opportunities to run through fields and forests, wander through museums full of bones and paintings, stroll along through a crowded city sidewalk sale, dig down through the sand of an island beach clear to China, wade through a quiet tidal pool, or taste a dozen different chili recipes.

We must, as the saying goes, "take time to smell the flowers," but being fully alive means we also will notice the unpleasant garbage which has accumulated along a city street, the heavy barbecue smell which lingers on the grill and the crispness of falling snow. Enjoy your child's curiosity about many of the things you have ceased to notice.

What does it take to strike your fancy? Awaken your sense of wonder? Make you curious? Not much really, if you look around and notice the world. It does not take the snows of Kilimanjaro or the roar of the Pacific Ocean crashing on a rocky shore. Lean down close to the grass on a summer morning and watch the sun reflect through the dew drops captured there for a few brief moments. Watch the same sun sparkle on the dew studded web of a spider. Notice the butterfly sampling this strange morning brew. Your child is a willing partner in these adventures. If you set the stage and provide the safety net, your child will probably even take the lead.

What makes something wonder-full? It is probably more a matter of your perspective - how you look at any thing - rather than something resident in the object or scene itself. There are undoubtedly special locations with an eerie atmosphere or spectacular vistas, but one need not travel to Mont St. Michel or the Grand Canyon to find something stimulating or wonderful. Your own backyard at sunset can hold secrets, if only in your imagination.

It might simply be something "out of the ordinary," something extra-ordinary. You encounter a sight which is either unusually majestic or unusually delicate. There may be a touch of magic which surrounds a scene or object, or it may be something which has sat before your eyes all along, lying unnoticed until it appears in focus for the first time because you have changed your lense. The bark on the tree in your front yard may hold a beautifully swirling pattern that rivals the Oriental carpet in your living room for grace and complexity, but it takes noticing to bring this natural art into everyday consciousness.

Changing lenses is easy once you and your child practice a bit. You might begin with real lenses at first, exploring the world with magnifying glass or binoculars until the metaphor takes hold and you can "zoom" in and out with your "naked eyes." The trick is to break the remoteness which characterizes "life in the fast lane" of this technologically driven society.

Our sense of wonder depends upon sharply awakened senses, yet we live in an urbanized culture which cuts us off from our agrarian roots, separates us from nature and turns us into couch potatoes. Certain senses are bombarded by TV images and sounds while others lie dormant. The bombardment engenders passivity and dulls the senses so that the subtleties of life go unnoticed.

After years of high volume media, we seem to lose our hearing. We slip into our cars, turn on the ignition and find the blast of the radio nearly deafening. Did we really have the radio cranked up so high last time we sat in the car? Were we listening to both the commercials and the music at such a high volume?

We spend so much time letting someone else frame our pictures or jangle our senses that we allow our own skills to lie dormant. In far too many cases our skills for looking at and tasting the world wither away, become emaciated and atrophy. But it is never too late for some "wonder therapy."

Make a point of organizing daily trips and excursions during your child's early years and then keep them coming on strong through the teenage years. The excursion can be to the library, the milk store or the back yard. "Come on. Let's see if the flowers are sleeping!" The voyage of discovery need not be elaborate or expensive. Even the simplest thing can be wonderful if we look at it in the right way. As your children grow, expand their adventures to include places farther afield. Take your 13-year-old and friends to the nearest city. Go up to the top of the highest building, walk across a big bridge or sit on a park bench and watch the people. With teenagers, focus on music, sports and people. Find out where the "with-it" people go.

Revive some special childhood adventures, like building sand castles or exploring on bicycles. If you encourage adventures like these, your teenager may not need to push some of the limits with drugs or sex. They can learn about risk-taking and the questions to ask which determine acceptable risk.

Chapter Two - Questioning (continued)

©1991 JMcKenzie

Network 609