Chapter Two - Questioning.2

Parenting for an Age of Information

Chapter Two - Questioning (continued)


Routine, rigidity and tight boundaries snuff out questions before they achieve a glimmer of light. The national trend toward standardization contributes to the problem as chains and franchises spread a bland veneer of sameness across the landscape. If we wander through the seaport shopping areas of Boston, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and San Francisco, it is hard to tell them apart or remember where we are. The same stores offer the same goods through the same windows no matter where you go. Drive down the shopping strips of Anytown, USA and try to find a restaurant which offers a real hamburger, the kind the cook shapes with his or her own hands. Cookie cutters are in vogue!

This cultural trend presents parents with a special challenge. Faced with a bland, name-brand dominated landscape, you must find ways to liberate your child from the merchandising, the shaping of tastes and the peer pressure for sameness. Conduct a search for the idiosyncratic, the unique, the curious and the eccentric. If you can sharpen your daughter or son's appetite for the unusual during the pre-school years, it will help protect him or her from the cookie-cutter standardization so typical of today's schools. Malvina Reynold's 1950s song about "Little Boxes" warned long ago of suburban lives of quiet, standardized desperation. We can free our children from such a future by teaching them to be good questioners.

While hard-working, two career parents must necessarily seek the comfort of predictable child-care arrangements and routines, these routines and schedules can wage a subtle war against wonderment. We must carefully guard against moving through the paces of our schedules without being fully alive or fully awake.

The drive to child care in the morning offers a feast of visual experiences, especially if we make a point of varying the route from day to day. Rather than slipping into a quiet, yawning ride of silence, try turning the trip into a game. Help your child notice the people along the route. Give them names and make up stories about them.

Parent: "Where do you think Mrs. Hamilton is headed this

morning all dressed up and waiting for the bus?"

Child: "I think she is having lunch with an old friend from


As you drive along, pull out the details of the landscape into "high relief." Identify the "for sale signs" in front of houses, track their progress and compare their style and messages. Start looking for the flowers to pop out of the ground as soon as spring arrives. Which ones come up first? How long do they last? Where are gardens along your route? What does each one offer? What are the traffic patterns along the route? How do they change with the time of day or day of the week? Teaching your child to observe, question and hypothesize can happen every day in many ways.

Encourage your child to add novelty to everyday routines. Make change a fun and creative part of each day. Within the routines of getting up and dressed, having meals, and traveling to and from places, ask, "What could we do differently just for fun?" or "How could we do this faster? or better? or more safely?" Keep your child's eyes on the horizon of what could be with questions like these.

Once your child feasts on life and learns to break through the routines which may dull the senses, he or she will never lose an appetite for experience. Questioning will become "second nature."


The goal we hold for our children is teach them how to find or fashion satisfying answers to life's puzzles by learning to ask good questions in effective sequences and combinations. There is no such thing as "the right question" or "the right sequence" because effective questioning often requires a certain amount of "muddling around." There is bound to be some trial and error, some intuitive play with tough questions. Dilemmas, paradoxes and quandaries all deserve and require some messy questioning balanced by a degree of disciplined, logical inquiry. The thinker who can shift gears back and forth between logic and license, from right to left side of the brain, will emerge with the richest insights.

If children grow up surrounded by adults who provide immediate, facile answers to every question, they gain the false impression that answers are stored inside the brain - like some organic encyclopedia - where they have been carefully memorized until they are needed. They get the idea that answers do not require thought or ingenuity. They fail to see how the initial question spawns additional questions, which eventually lead to a fresh answer. They lose out on the opportunity to observe an adult mind searching, analyzing and deciding.

Make a point of answering some questions, especially the complex or wide open questions, with an admission of ignorance or uncertainty: "Why aren't we exploring the moon anymore?" might provoke a quick response about economic priorities, or something like, "It really depends. There could be a lot of different answers. Some people might answer one way and others would disagree. Let's see how many different answers we can come up with."

Children often ask some of the most profound questions of all. "Why can't people live together without war?" is a questions we have all been struggling with for many, many years. These kinds of questions deserve to be praised and explored with your child. If the question has no right answer, if it allows many plausible answers, or if it depends upon circumstances or opinion, make that clear in your response: "I don't know. I'm really not sure. A lot of people have been struggling to answer that question for a long time. Let's think about how we might answer that one. That's a great question!" Bring your own way of asking and answering questions out in the open so your child can see how your mind works.

It is easy to forget that answers are actually conclusions. They are statements or judgments which are made at the end of a thinking process. You are most helpful when you join your child in that thinking process or exploration. As you take these voyages over and over again, your child will learn from the model you set as a thinking person. There are many environments to explore. You can get on the computer together to explore databases which hold partial answers. You can drive to the library, go out into the garden and dig up the soil or visit the ocean to observe the fiddler crab first hand. You can set up experiments with window boxes or pets or tools. You can demonstrate through your actions that some answers are based on a long string of questions and data collection over a considerable period of time.

And then there are questions which may seem unanswerable. "Why are some people homeless? Why don't people vote? How can I keep up with my older sister?" When we encounter these questions we must balance the child's need for reassurance with our own respect for the truth. We can teach our children that some questions have bothered people for hundreds of years and that we must each answer them as best we can. We can confess that being alive sometimes involves pain and sadness. We can acknowledge that life is not always fair and that not everybody plays by the rules. This prepares children to deal with the reality that they will not always have the answers to some very important questions.


Without trying very hard, we can find an endless supply of anomalies, paradoxes, dilemmas, predicaments and quandaries to perplex, bewilder, astonish and intrigue us. These puzzles arouse our curiosity and stimulate questioning. While we may be confounded at first glance, our questions begin to break up this mental log jam, unlock our frozen thinking and set us on the road to understanding.

From a very early age you and your child can begin collecting such puzzles. You may want to use stories like The Ugly Duckling (*) or The Selfish Giant (*) to help set the stage and define the kinds of puzzles you seek. In your weekly visits to the library seek out books and stories like the Phantom Tollbooth (*) which are filled with word play, paradoxes and predicament. As you and your child develop skill with puzzles in literature, you can begin seeking them in the world around you.

As you start hunting for puzzles, create an I Wonder Why . . . book with your child. Each night as part of the evening story reading and discussion, ask if there are any new wonders to be added to the list. Keep track of these wonderful questions and plan excursions to help find answers to some of them.

You may want to encourage family members to bring puzzles and questions to the dinner table for family discussion. It may be an ambiguous photograph. "What is happening in this picture? What is going on here? What's missing? What's different?" It may be data reported in the newspaper from a survey of people's attitudes toward homelessness. "What do these numbers tell us? How would you answer the survey?" It may be something strange a child noticed on the school bus on the way home from school - the fact that the driver pulled away even though one of the children slipped and fell getting off the bus.

Life presents us with an endless supply of puzzles. The only problem is that many people spend their lives avoiding puzzles and serious questions. They seek stability, predictability and certainty in an uncertain world. Instead of learning to use good questions to adapt and adjust to a changing world they adopt a "bunker" mentality.

Puzzle avoidance leads to stagnation. A healthy society keeps its head out of the sand and tries to see what is coming in order to be prepared. A healthy person learns to wrestle with difficult questions and predicaments rather than rely upon recipes and formulas which may have worked in the past. If you raise your child on a diet of puzzles, she or he will grow up feeling confident and resourceful. Ingenuity and skill will grow year by year. Confronted by a dilemma, a quandary or a paradox, she or he will not be shaken or cowed. She or he will greet the dilemma as a challenge, a test of ingenuity.

Chapter Two - Questioning (continued)

©1991 JMcKenzie

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