Lessons about Questions

Today at day camp drop-off a boy (probably a year or two older than Kale) rather abruptly asked me whether Kale was a boy or a girl. His exact question was actually “Is *this* [pointing to Kale] a boy or a girl?” I answered him simply, “a boy”, and kept walking.

Kale seemed exasperated by the question as he put down his backpack – there was much eye rolling and sighing –  and so I pulled him aside to gently give him the gears and remind him that having long hair meant he would sometimes get questions, because some people thought it was different than normal, and that he needed to be prepared to politely but briefly answer their questions about his gender, blah blah blah. He told me he knew that (sheesh, Mom), but that this particular boy had asked him repeatedly throughout the week of day camp, and refused to believe Kale when he politely and briefly answered his question and he kept pestering.

This got me thinking about how we teach our children to ask questions about something they see as “not normal”. Children are naturally curious. Feedback from questions that seem a bit taboo to us as adults helps make sense of the world for children. It helps them recognize and expand the breadth of what “normal” is. Our brains and our eyes look for inconsistencies when presented with something new, and flags things that don’t look as expected.

Questions like “Why does that man only have one leg?” “Why does that woman use a wheelchair?” What does that boy have long hair?” “Why does that girl have a red mark on her face?” are perfectly natural questions from a child. Where it’s appropriate, asking the man/woman/boy/girl the question directly is often okay. I’ve read a number of essays by people in wheelchairs or with prosthetics or port wine birthmarks or blue hair that they prefer the innocent question of a child to be asked directly rather than quiet whispering amongst everyone else.

But when the child is given an answer, they have to accept it has been answered, even if it doesn’t make sense. This is where I think we don’t often close the loop when we teach children. It’s okay if it opens up other questions, but the answer to that first question needs to be accepted. Asking the same question over and over hoping or expecting a different answer is not going to help your child learn anything. So, it is important to teach them to then accept the answer, and if they have follow up questions, ask those politely too. Much like Asked and Answered, my go-to anti-nag, I truly think kids can and should learn that even if the answer doesn’t make complete sense, it is an answer.

I have patience for the hair questions, and I suspect Kale has developed patience too. I also have a trick to shut it down when it becomes too much. Here’s a pretty typical conversation I’ve had:

Is this a boy or a girl? A boy.

Why does he have long hair? He likes it that way.

Does he wear it in braids? No, but he can if he wants. He sometimes wears a ponytail. He uses a headband at karate.

Does he have to brush it? Yes. Just like you.

But don’t only girls have long hair? Nope.

But I’ve never seen a boy with long hair. Now you have! And now you have two more questions left in your interview.  

Can my hair grow that long? It is able to, yes. You and your parents get to decide on what your hairstyle is.

Why do you let him grow his hair? Because I don’t mind him expressing himself by having long hair so long as he keeps it clean and brushes it. I like his hair. And that was your last question! Good questions! 

If the “And now you have two more questions left in your interview” prompts an off topic question like “Why do I only get two?” I often reply “Are you sure you want to waste one of your last two questions on that one?”. When the two questions are done, I simply refuse to answer any more of the “pester-y” questions. It was frustrating for Kale at first, but he knows I’m serious when I say “two more questions left” and makes those last two good ones.

Because good questions can make all the difference.