When Children Ask Questions

They are wise parents who always strive to answer their child’s questions simply and honestly

MABEL CREWS RINGLAND June 1 1929

When Children Ask Questions

They are wise parents who always strive to answer their child’s questions simply and honestly

MABEL CREWS RINGLAND June 1 1929

When Children Ask Questions

They are wise parents who always strive to answer their child’s questions simply and honestly

MABEL CREWS RINGLAND

I'D GIVE anything if there was only somebody who could answer all my questions,” our nine-year-old lad said wistfully one night at bedtime. “All about the world and the stars and the sun and God and radio and sound waves and especially electricity.”

“Why don’t you ask Daddy? He knows a lot about such things,” I suggested.

“He can answer a lot of questions, but he doesn’t know the answers to them all. He often says, ‘We don’t know that yet.’ But I’ve got to know. It worries me all the time.” There was no doubting his earnestness.

“There are lots of things nobody understands yet, son,” I replied. “If God had explained all the mysteries and secrets of the universe to us, there wouldn’t be anything left to search for, and it wouldn’t be half as interesting a world, would it?”

“Well, I suppose not. I guess He expects us to work it out for ourselves and use our brains. But it all worries me. There’s my battery; it’s full of ’lectricity, yet I can’t touch the ’lectricity or find out what it is ! Isn’t it queer! And I can listen to music miles away, but you can’t see sound waves either. It’s all too much for me.” Why do children ask such questions? Is it not that, like the wise men and philosophers of the ages, they are trying to work out some scheme that will explain what they cannot understand and to increase their store of knowledge? And this is the reason that their questions, so often aimed at the fundamental problems of life, problems which have baffled learned men for centuries, make us feel so helpless and inadequate. We don’t relish having our ignorance shown up, but it is folly to think we can dismiss their questions with an impatient gesture or a flippant answer.

“Silly Questions”

CURIOSITY has been called the mother of all knowledge and the nuisance of all mothers. There is no dodging the fact that it has been responsible for most of the world’s great discoveries and that when we stop asking questions the race will cease to advance. Yet the inquisitive child who plies us with ceaseless queries is often a constant source of annoyance to busy adults who have more weighty matters to occupy their thoughts.

“Don’t ask such silly questions,” we say impatiently, and try our best to put a stop to the whole business by making our answers as unsatisfying as possible. As a matter of fact, a child’s questions are seldom silly. I overheard a small boy on the street-car the other day being soundly rebuked for a most intelligent query. He had seen for the first time an electrically-driven truck and wanted to know how that funny car could “go without any engine.” Another wee lad was urged not to be foolish when he enquired what made the street-car door open without anyone touching it. Both highly intelligent questions, I should say. We forget that much which is obvious and commonplace to us is mysterious and baffling to the child.

A youngster may acquire the habit of asking inane questions simply to attract attention, but making it think out its own answers will usually cure this fault. An intelligent child can be made to see that it is a waste of time asking questions which it can answer for itself.

One of the chief functions of parents, it seems to me is the rôle of interpreter of life to the young child. If a child can bring to its parents all the questions and problems of its outside experience and receive sincere and sympathetic interpretation, it will come to feel that home is a blessed haven of understanding, a place to go for help and relief from the perplexities and complexities that baffle and often overwhelm the child mind. And because the way the questions are answered means so much to the child’s whole approa&i to life it behooves us to give the matter some serious thought. Let us see what general principles there are that may help us to outline a policy of how to meet the situation.

First of all, we want to adapt our information to the child’s capacity, which is not so easy as it seems. We see things through adult eyes and forget how much is new and strange to children. To make simple, clear,

direct and logical explanations is a fine art, is it not? Secondly, we should aim to give information when the child wants it, which is the time of golden opportunity. A youngster does not ask questions unless interested and curious about a thing, and then he or she is in the mood to learn. In the third place, we should try to answer honestly. Evasion and deception, however slight, undermine children’s confidence in us and make them turn elsewhere for help. If we do not know, it is no disgrace to say so and together seek the answer. A fourth objective is to interest the child in answering its own questions by securing information for itself. The more this hunger for knowledge can be satisfied through its own efforts as it grows older, the greater will be its enjoyment. A good encyclopedia or set of reference books well-illustrated, is almost indispensable in a home where there are children.

The actual questions children ask might be considered under three classifications—What? Why? How? The first group, the “What?” class, covers all questions of fact and information, by which the young person learns the identification and use of objects that make up his world. These are by all odds the simplest to handle, for we usually know the answers, and if not, we can frankly hunt them up without loss of prestige. But when we come to the “Why?” questions which probe the reasons for all sorts of happenings, we are face to face with some pretty solid philosophical and religious problems. How we handle them depends largely on our own personal convictions and if we have never bothered to work out any philosophy of our own, we are apt to be in for a peck of trouble.

But regardless of what our belief may be, we are all prone to drag in theology and philosophy too much. Religion for little children needs to be exceedingly simple and close to life, a matter of behavior rather than of involved creeds and elaborate ceremonies. Modern thought has done a great deal in humanizing religion, in translating it into a programme for everyday living that places it on a level which even a child can appreciate.

In talking with mothers and fathers on this subject, one about which a great many are seeking enlightment today, I find two outstanding extremes. There is the too conservative parent who, in his adherence to the old traditional beliefs now largely outgrown, teaches his child that there is only one right way of thinking.

Then there is the other extreme of the more tolerant, broad-minded parent who is so afraid of being dogmatic and giving his children some prejudice, that he makes the tragic mistake of giving them nothing. For fear of building up habits of thought rather than convictions, he teaches nothing as a spiritual certainty, not even God, leaving the boy or girl free to choose his or her own philosophy of life. Is it not possible to strike a happy medium between the old narrow viewpoint and the rather risky ultra-modern approach? Can we not teach our children a few simple truths with the understanding that these are not final, that life will bring greater insight and enlarged truth? It seems to me that the progressive character of religion should hearten rather than discourage us.

Surely we are inconsistent if we refrain from teaching a child about God or how to pray, just because when he is twenty he may wish to change his views or not care to pray at all. To be consistent, we should shield our offspring from telephones and motor-cars, aeroplanes, radios and all forms of electricity because when they reach maturity these may be àntiquated. Progress involves elimination, development and change, but you have to have something to start with. The child will of necessity revise its religious ideas as it does its other concepts, but it needs as a beginning, a feeling of security and peace, a sense of God’s care and his parents’ love and protection which will free it from all apprehension and fear, for there is nothing more distressing and harmful to the young mind than uncertainty. As the child grows older it will learn that, much as God loves His children, He cannot keep them from all harm, but this added knowledge which life brings will come gradually and naturally if the background of belief has been sound and its wonderings satisfied simply and sincerely at different stages. Then, if perplexities and doubts do come later, as they may, the individual will be better equipped for the struggle because of a compass by which the course may be charted. Absence of any religious belief, specialists tell us, is one of the major causes of the unrest and serious mental disorders which are fast increasing among adolescents.

Gome books which will help parents to clarify their own thinking and answer puzzling questions more readily are: “The Mother-Teacher of Religion,” by Anna F. Betts (Abingdon Press), which is beautifully illustrated; “The Dawn of Religion in the Mind of the Child,” by E. E. Mumford (Longmans, Green & Co.); “Present Day Problems in Religious Teaching,” by Hetty Lee (MacMillan); “What and Where is God?” by Richard L. Swain (MacMillan).

Sex Training

'T'HE third type of questions includes the “How?” queries, which deal with origins and causes, and here we need, most of all, the scientific approach. This is none the less true in that most vexing phase of the problem, sex training, which parents today are handling in a more sane, impersonal manner than in the past. The customary evasion and deliberate deception with which our childish questions of “Where do babies come from?” or “Why are boys different from girls?” were met, js gradually giving way to an honest, straightforward attitude which holds that if normal curiosity remains unsatisfied, it is only whetted and rendered abnormal. Parents who have any insight into the enquiring minds of children realize that it is not a choice between knowledge and ignorance, but between knowledge obtained from them and from doubtful sources; also that such a wonder is not a sign of depravity. Many a child has been cruelly punished and accused of filthy-mindedness when it was simply satisfying the perfectly natural thirst for knowledge which Nature gave it.

If the child’s questions are answered by the mother or father, or both, as they arise, in a perfectly frank, satisfactory manner as they would offer any other scientific information, with none of the secrecy and sentimentality of the past, it will return to the same source when more help is needed, stage by stage in his or her development. A youngster may be told that it is a subject which we do not discuss generally, just as there are many other things about which we prefer to be reticent in public. As one boy put it: “Just like we don’t say our prayers on the street.” It is unquestionably hard for us to talk rightly about sex if, through having our early impressions and attitudes colored by sly, unsavory information, we do not think rightly about it. But having seen the unhappy results of the conspiracy of silence, no conscientious parents would wish to duplicate the experience for their child.

Students of childhood who have to deal with sex delinquencies in school and juvenile court, state emphatically that these boys and girls who get into difficulties invariably come from homes where sex training was neglected, not from those where good foundations for sex-control were laid by wholesome sex education and good health habits in the early formative years. Is this not significant? Many misleading and sentimental books have been written which have confused rather than helped parents, but a new one which is highly recommended by specialists for use with children has recently appeared, “Growing Up,” by Karl de Schweinitz (MacMillan), which is exceedingly well illustrated. Two very readable and practical books for parents’ own use are Galloway’s “Biology of Sex” and Gruenberg’s “Parents and Sex Education.” We all need suggestions and help in overcoming past prejudices and conventionalities of prudishness which prevent us from developing in our children the wholesome attitude toward sex which is their greatest safeguard for the future, and hence such books as these are invaluable.

A leading child specialist recently gave it as his opinion that children are brighter nowadays than they were a quarter of a century ago, that they are happier, too, and have a more wholesome outlook on life. If this is true, may it not be in a measure because we are answering their questions more intelligently and conscientiously, thus interpreting more satisfactorily to them the enigma of this marvelously complex world in which we live?