Remember the old joke about war drums in the jungle? A hunter asks a guide, “Should we be worried about those drums?”
And the guide shakes his head and says, “Not until they stop.”
The same goes for children’s questions. It’s exhausting trying to answer them, but we hope they never stop. As parents and grandparents and adults who care for them, we want them to ask whatever’s on their minds.
If they don’t get answers from us, they’ll get them somewhere else, maybe from someone who doesn’t love them as we do.
As a mother, I did not do everything right. Far from it. But I tried to answer my kids’ questions as best I could. If I didn’t know an answer, we’d try to find it together. And if the answer was not to be found (as when our dog died and they wanted to know “why?”) I’d think long and hard, then tell tell them what I thought.
Children will answer life’s questions for themselves as they grow up. But to do so, they need to hear what others believe, especially the people they love and trust most of all.
My daughter was the “Queen of Why?” When she was 3, she’d follow every answer I offered with yet another “Why?”
One day, I snapped. “Well,” I said, “why do you think?”
So she told me what she thought. And I realized she’d been waiting for me to say the answer she had in mind. After that, if she asked “Why?” I’d say, “Why do you think?” And she’d tell me. Then she’d go play until she thought of a new question.
She now has her own highly inquisitive 8 year old, plus a classroom of third graders, who constantly bombard her with “why?” And I’m pretty sure she often says, “Why do you think?”
My grandchildren ask questions nonstop. If I don’t know an answer, I tell them to go ask Papa Mark, my husband, a retired editor, who will either (a) know the answer; (b) Google it; or (c) make something up.
But sometimes the questions, simple as they seem, catch me unaware and slip inside closely guarded places in my heart.
“Who is your mom?” asked my granddaughter. Eleanor is 5, trying to make sense of the world. The recent passing of the grandmother of a friend has raised a flurry of questions.
“My mom’s name was Betty,” I said. “She would’ve adored you.”
“Did she die?”
“Yes,” I said. “She was old.”
“My dad’s dad died.”
“I know,” I said. “He was my husband. He got very sick. He would’ve adored you, too.”
She nodded. “And then you married Papa Mark?”
“Yes. And now he adores you. So many people adore you!”
“Your dad died, too? And your grandma and grandpa? Do you miss all of them?” she asked.
I took a moment to breathe.
“Well,” I said, brushing her hair with my fingers, “I miss seeing them. But even if you can’t see someone, you can still love them and know they love you. I keep them in my heart. That’s where I keep you. Where am I when you can’t see me?”
She pointed to her chest and recited the answer I’ve drilled into her and her brothers and cousins since they were born.
“In my heart!”
“That’s right,” I said. “And that’s where I will always be, even if you can’t see me. I want you to remember that, OK?”
“OK,” she said. “Can we get some ice cream?”
Children aren’t the only ones who need to ask questions. Adults need to do it, too. Asking questions keeps us young — in spirit, if not in body. When we stop asking questions, when we think we know all the answers and try to force them on others, we get really old really fast.
I hope to stay young (in spirit, at least) ’til the cows come home and the creek don’t rise and the dish runs away with the spoon.
Why? I want to hear every question my grandbabes will ask, and shake my head in wonder at their answers.
Randall is a longtime newspaper columnist who may be contacted at P.O. Box 416, Pacific Grove CA 93950, or via her website, www.sharonrandall.com.