The other day I wrote a post about letting kids express their curosity, and drive to explore, and entertaining as many of their questions as humanly possible – whether they are asking if the moon is really made of cheese or asking why they have to take a bath. One of my favorite parenting bloggers, at kloppenmum.wordpress.com, wrote in with a couple of points I’d like to consider today. Here’s her comment in full:
Interesting post. I’m not going to argue point by point, but just raise two things for your consideration.
1. The children I know (and have known) who incessantly ask why are in fact unhappy and out of the Continuum, and are desperately trying to find a way back. I am always cautious of our children’s whys in the first instance: is it an emotional why or a truly intellectual why.
2. There are many ways to answer why questions. I still strongly maintain the view that early intellectualisation is not useful however appealing it may seem, and all the adults I know who had a high-nurturing and early-intellectual start to life have, as adults completely rejected their parents.
Look forward to hearing your thoughts on these points.
When I first read the comment, I thought I might simply sidestep the initial question by asserting that I never mentioned “children who incessantly ask why”, but rather how our entertaining their interests and questions might help them feel more understanding of “our incessant ‘why’s”. That is, I believe it is we parents who are the more constant “why”ers in the family: “Why’re you doing that? Why aren’t you doing what I asked? Why are your pants filthy? Why aren’t you eating? Why don’t you have a coat on?…”
And while I could have perhaps rested on the laurels of that cutesy semantic slight-of-hand to avoid the discussion all together – as soon as I thought the above paragraph, I realized two things: 1) I didn’t mention in the previous post just how much we parents are constantly modeling inquisition to our children. It isn’t just the natural part of human nature to want to know that guides our children, but also our own almost limitless use of inquiry in our interactions with them. Even if we aren’t mining for particular answers, we’re asking “Do you like that? Was that fun? Do you want more? Are you ok? What’re you playing?…” And 2) Avoiding the discussion by responding to a comment/question without answering the spirit of the question is exactly the opposite of what I’m saying we should do with our kids! So I decided instead to go in the opposite direction and be really thorough in my consideration and response to the above comment from Kloppenmum.
In the first part of the comment, she explains her concern when children are “incessantly asking why” and asserts that the kids she has known who do so are actually “unhappy and out of the Continuum, and are desperately trying to find a way back.” This is actually an important point to consider, but I want to reframe the manner of consideration for our purposes here.
The Continuum Concept was developed by Jen Liedloff, and is considered the basis for most Attachment Parenting techniques. The most basic description I can give of Liedloff’s thesis is that biologically speaking all human infants are designed to have certain (nonconscious) expectations which essentially coalesce around being cared for and responded to in a timely, efficient, and calm manner. There are also expectations of being nurtured, kept physically close, and nursed on demand (even as often as every 20 minutes). When these needs are not fully met, as in most Western (non-attachment based) families, the infants are knocked out of their proper process in the Continuum, and begin to show signs of distress that compound and create dysfunction as the child (mis)develops.
In all families, there are momentary slips in the child’s Continuum that generate a response in the child – from mild grunting and nuzzling, to all out wailing. When the parent responds quickly and somewhat casually, then the child’s Continuum is restored, as well as her happiness and feeling of security. The child is not only comforted in the moment, in these situations, but also brought closer to a state of enduring self-assurance – the kind we want them to carry forward with them into their individuation.
If infantile bonding doesn’t get quite deep enough, or if the infant spends enough time out of the Continuum, then things get steadily more difficult for all parties involved in raising her (including and especially her). In light of this, Kloppenmum’s assertion that “incessant whys” reflect a child’s distance from the Continuum is worthy of note. However, rather than reacting with suspicion or resistance in such cases, I think if we respond “quickly and somewhat casually” to this signaling, we are actually helping to restore the child’s process. And more subtly, even when kids aren’t being excessive in their questioning, I think their curiosity and drive to connect coalesce to offer both parent and child another opportunity to be in the Continuum together.
So whether it is an “emotional why or a truly intellectual why” winds up not mattering to me as much as being responsive, because both are opportunities to enrich the connection. As Liedloff explains, the two most important things that being in the Continuum helps children to grasp is that they are “Worthy and Welcome”. And I think that, among the other things we’re doing to nurture them, answering their questions (of whatever import) is another way to clearly communicate those two things. And if I think of the opposite scenario, wherein the parents refuse to answer, show disdain, disinterest, or mistrust with the question(ing) or with the child for asking a question, then “Worthy and Welcome” are not being communicated, and “stop bothering me” is.
In reality, if we’ve been nurturing that bond all along, and have done our parenting part to keep our children in the Continuum, then we will be able to tell the difference between a natural, curious “why” and a nervous, insecure one, and in this case, the actual number of insecure questions and specifically “emotional whys” our children emit will never reach “incessant” levels. But it may still feel that way to the parents after a long day of entertaining any average child’s daily interests. And that’s why I spent the time to give us all some encouragement to be responsive, and allow the moment to be a connective one, rather than adversarial.
As to Kloppenmum’s second assertion – that “early intellectualization is not useful however appealing it may seem” and the further anecdotal evidence that such early intellectualizing when combined with high-nurturing has produced adults “who completely rejected their parents”: First, I would have to claim, on the one hand, that there are so many other factors involved that it is unwise (and likely incorrect) to reduce the results of whole parent-child relationships to just two factors. There is likely so much more that went into the problems these families experienced that we could spend every post I’ve written thus far on this blog to discuss it, and still not reveal all the involved factors. Secondly, where does one draw the proverbial line between too much intellectualizing, and debilitatingly little; and if it’s a thin line, how do we accommodate the varying intellectual needs of individual children?
Again assuming the spirit of the question in Kloppenmum’s assertion, let me reframe the current discourse by saying: “Intellectualization” isn’t what I am talking about – at least not in the abstract, solely referring to existential experience by virtue of the intellect kind of way. And yet, I am also not talking about ignoring the child’s expression of the kind of information for which he is ready. So if it comes close to the dictionary definition of “intellectual” or “intellectualizing”, I am not afraid of still giving the child the information he requested (at any age when he shows the developmental capability to absorb it). I am still rather skeptical of our scientific ability to plumb the depths or potential of the human mind, so I tend to take my kids at face value on things like this, but without letting my own drive to pontificate get in the way of their natural development.
The rule of thumb for me has two parts: 1) Listen to the question and respond in kind; and 2) Keep the level and variety of information as present as possible. Even though I am skeptical of what we know about brain development, I am still assuming that our scientists are generally on the right track when they explain that most of our brain functioning before the age of 6 is involved in unconscious mapping of the world as it is. So I don’t have much interest in taxing that development by overcomplicating anything, particularly the kind of information I am offering to that unconscious mapping process. And yet, as I intimated above, each child is developmentally unique, and will access and interact with information in her own unique way. The rule of thumb above addresses each question the child utters by virtue of the individual and the general development.
For example, if my 3 year-old asked (the unlikely question), “Why is the sky blue?” I would state matter-of-factly, because it reflects the ocean – a true, if incomplete, answer. If the 7 year-old asked the same question, I would respond with a more detailed answer about the black void of space on the other side of it, the particles in the atmosphere and the reflection bit. If the 10 year-old asked, I’d say, “What do you think?” And after she explored her ideas, I might offer her some further details.
However, if the question is “But why do we have to go to the library now? I want to play.” Then they all three get pretty much the same answer – “Because I said so…”. Nooo, just kidding. I’d be likely to explain that, “It’s because you want books to read, and we want to return the books that we’ve already read on time.” If the question is “Why do I have to put on a coat?” then the answer is again likely to be the same for all three, “Because it’s cold out there, and I want you stay warm.”
In none of the above cases, do I think we are at risk of over-intellectualizing, nor are we seeing signs of any of the girls being out of the Continuum. They just want to know. In the first case, they are involved in forming that map of the world, they are being driven to explore by innate human tendencies and natural development. In the latter two cases, they are looking for information that will warrant their compliance in a situation where “intellectually” they aren’t sure they want to comply. And in those cases, we don’t take that as a sign that they are being adversarial, nor that they are not trusting us, but that they simply have their own opinion and naturally want to align theirs with ours (and because this is an unconscious drive, it can manifest as disagreeing in order to illicit agreement).
All of that being said, our 3 year-old, who just so happens to be “developmentally advanced”, does ask questions about the social import of scenes in the movie she saw yesterday, or about the way she saw two people interacting 4 hours ago, or about the meaning of certain words or phrases, and totally abstracted from any perceivable context. So we are somewhat accustomed to answering intellectualized questions from her, but still seek to do so as plainly and contextually as possible in order to honour our general understanding of natural development (as well as her individualized version). For more examples from her (and one other from Xi) look here.
So whether we are just helping them map the world in their subconscious, helping them understand the reasons for what we are asking, or even helping to nudge them back into the Continuum, we remain open to meeting all of their questions with patience, understanding, and appropriate information. And whether it is to assist their natural development, nurture the relationship we share, empower their explorations, or keep them from growing up to be complacent followers, we will continue to allow and encourage them to ask whatever they want from us. And we hope that they will go right on questioning, and knowing that they are “Worthy and Welcome” to do so.