Learning to Ask Questions

“Mom, Laura Ingalls Wilder was wrong,” said my five-year-old one morning while I squeezed lemon wedges into hot water for the “lemon tea” he’d requested. “She said kids like drinking cambric tea because it makes them feel grown up, but I drank cambric tea and I didn’t feel grown up at all.”

I felt unaccountably sad hearing this insight. While I like that he’s learning that not everything he reads applies directly to real life—a lesson I hope he will extend to what he reads online as he gets older—I had no idea that he’d asked me to make him cambric tea because he wanted to feel grown up. Of course he wants to feel grown up. I remember striving for adulthood and all of the rights and privileges I imagined I would inherit upon attaining that magical state. It’s just that I’d not heard this from him before.

Now that it’s in my awareness, though, I’m noticing that both of my children talk about growing up with some frequency. I can hear them working out what it means to be an adult. They talk about their future careers, how many kids they’ll have, who they’ll marry.

Their discussions give me insights into how they see the world. The other night, my son said at dinner, “Women and men do things differently.” When asked for examples, he said, “Well, I know men and women both go to work—” he glanced up meaningfully, it seemed, at jobless me, “—but only women do things like give birth, adopt…”

He trailed off and after a pause I said, “Well, men don’t give birth, but they can adopt.”

“They can?” he asked, eyebrows raised, and I wondered what chain reaction of understanding this piece of information had set off.

It reminded me of a discussion about marriage we’d had a few weeks ago. My daughter said, “I want to get married when I grow up, but I’m not sure yet if I’m going to marry a man or a woman.”

I assured her that she didn’t need to make that choice at age nine, and she’d figure it out when she found someone she loved.

“Well, I have to marry a woman,” my son chimed in.

“Why’s that?” I asked. He looked at me with the “duh, Mom” look he’s already perfecting.

“Because men can’t marry men. They can only marry women.”

“Actually, men can marry men,” I said, and named for him two male couples we know who are married. Then he went on a tangent about how he wanted to invite them to his sixth birthday party, which at this point involves hiring a bus to take everyone we know into Boston to ride the swan boats and eat pizza. We’ll pick blueberries on the way home then have cake and play Legos at our house, outside because our house isn’t big enough for all of the people. (For the record, these are his plans, not mine.)

I’ve recognized all along that my children’s world view is being shaped by their everyday experiences, but these conversations highlight the limited control I have over this world view. My children see the gender roles played out by their parents, and they extrapolate those to apply to the whole species. Our church and social circle include many more women couples and hetero couples than men couples, and apparently my son has interpreted this to mean that he’s restricted in whom he loves. Of course my kids draw these conclusions from their observations, but still it surprises me.

My first reaction is to try and expand their view. “We’ve got to invite John and Elliot over to dinner!” I think. Or, “I need to go back to grad school—right away!” Or, “We need to move somewhere we can walk to things and take the bus! Quick! Buy some seeds! We need to grow our own food instead of having a monoculture lawn!”

I want to orchestrate the kind of world I want them to see as the norm. I want them to see people who love each other getting married and building families. I want them to see that our driving-all-the-time, hyper-consumptive culture isn’t the only way to live; that a big yard might be nice, but suburban living isn’t sustainable if everyone does it, and we should make our decisions with that in mind. I want them to understand from experience that billions of people speak and think and live their lives in languages other than English. I want them to see that people aren’t defined by the choices they make. I want to build my kids into the kind of grown-ups I myself wish I was.

But I can’t give them every experience, and I don’t want every social encounter and every career move and every relocation to be contrived as a “learning experience.” More than anything, I want my children to remain open and accepting, and that’s not going to get done if I limit their experiences to just those that fall in line with the specific lessons I have in mind. My children need to have a wide range of experiences, both direct and indirect, and then we need to talk about them.

And this means I need to learn to ask more questions and give fewer answers. My son didn’t need me to explain to him that a mug of water and hot milk might not make him feel grown up even though it made Laura and Mary feel that way. He thought about it, tried it out, and figured it out for himself.

Giving my children answers limits them to the answers I’ve drawn from my own personal experience. But encouraging them to ask questions and having faith that they can find the answers themselves will open up the world for them.

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