I have to be the only parent in history looking forward to my kid’s “Why?” stage. I imagined a whole universe of learning lying ahead of us. I’d answer questions until I ran out of answers and then we’d look it up together, snuggled up in the light of the computer screen. When we didn’t have time, we’d write them down to investigate later. When I’d ask him what he thought, he’d come up with a brilliant but age-appropriate answer, showing equal parts creativity and insight.
Like any parenting fantasy, it didn’t work out that way.
For one thing, it was a long time coming. I started eying Think Geek’s “But why?” t-shirt two Christmases ago. My mom decorated a “Question Board” for his second birthday.
But instead of asking “Why?” Sprout just asked, “What’s that?” Endlessly. Multiple times in a row about the exact same object. Nonetheless, I did my best to not just name the object, but explain it to his level of interest.
When the why phase finally arrived last week, it turned out to be less straightforward than I expected. I seriously overestimated a three-year-old’s memory and attention span. Good luck having him care about a topic he asked about a few hours before. I also failed to consider his reticence. When he doesn’t know an answer or just doesn’t feel like answering, he insists, “You say it.”
That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy answering his “whys” far more than most parents. It’s just not the basking in the glory of “Science” (cue the trumpets) I expected.
Sometimes, the explanation is pretty simple. “Why did we eat it?” “Because we were hungry.” Or a bit more complex, but still straightforward. “Why do we need to wash hands?” “Because we were in the garden and there are little critters that can make us sick in the dirt. We need to wash them off before we eat.”
Sometimes, the explanation is way too complex for even me – someone who writes about astrophysics in my day job – to delve into for a three-year-old. Most of the time I answer these with a one-word answer, followed with, “I’ll explain when you’re older.” “Why is the letter M?” “Linguistics.” “Why do cats have tails?” “Evolution.”
Sometimes, he asks questions that I don’t have adequate information to answer. I often flip these around to ask his opinion. “Why is there a flag on the top of the station?” “I don’t know. What do you think?”
And then there are the questions that stop me cold.
“Why is he being mean?”
He’s asked me this twice in the last week, each time during a movie (Zootopia and Moana). In both cases, I was trying to provide context to a character’s actions. I didn’t expect the follow-up question.
I blinked, opened my mouth, closed it again. I whispered, “I don’t know, honey.”
Later on, I added that sometimes people are mean because they’ve been badly treated (Zootopia) or away from other people for a long time (Moana).
But fundamentally, that’s a question I will never have a good answer to. I can’t explain why someone who made fun of disabled people is our president elect. Or why casual cruelty is so dominant in our society. Or why Sprout himself sometimes thinks it’s funny to hurt his little brother.
Sure, there are explanations. Original sin is a major part of Christian theology. Social science has a lot to say about power dynamics and organizations. But all of the high-minded explainations in the world are too lofty. They don’t provide the concrete answer that my child’s question asks.
While I don’t have an answer, I do have a response. Even if he doesn’t ask that exact question again, I suspect it will arise in many other forms. When it does, I will tell him that no matter why someone is mean, when they are, we push back with kindness, respect, and justice. We turn the other cheek in defiance. We love radically. And that is an answer that will outlast any phase.
If you like the “But why?” phase more than normal like me, you may want to check out my post on How to Encourage Your Child to Explore.