Why Difficult Questions Are the Best Questions

Children ask difficult questions
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Young children are question-asking machines. Researchers estimate that three-year-olds ask between 400 and 1,200 questions per week.[1]Daniel Willingham, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do, p. 45.

Sometimes questions are difficult because we don’t know the answer. Sometimes they’re difficult because they make us uncomfortable. Both kinds of questions present golden opportunities to teach your child about things even more important than facts.

When your child asks you a question for which you don’t know the answer, you have a chance to show your child that not knowing things is a normal state of affairs, curiosity is a beautiful thing, and there are ways to find the answers to our questions.

Do some quick research and simplify

Your child asks, “Why is the sky blue?”

You think to yourself, “Oh, I know I learned that way back, but I forget … How am I going to answer this question?”

Try something like this: “I don’t know. What a great question! Let’s find out together later. Remind me when we get home that we have to look up the answer to this question.”

When you get a chance, try searching the internet for information. You’ll often need to do some simplifying to answer your child’s questions. For example, after checking out NASA’s answer to the blue sky question, you might answer like this: “The light from the sun is made up of many colors, like a rainbow. The molecules in the atmosphere scatter the blue light best, so the sky looks blue to us.”

This answer, of course, may trigger more questions: “What is the atmosphere? What are molecules?” Great! Try to answer the questions in ways your child will understand and also in ways that will stimulate her to want to know more. Conversations like this are how you teach your child that learning is life and life is learning.

Be open and honest

Other questions are difficult because they make us uncomfortable. For example: “Why were you and Daddy fighting?”

These kinds of questions offer the opportunity to teach our children how we handle and communicate about emotionally fraught topics. If you’re like me, this is something you’re still learning. For many of us, it’s a lifelong journey, and it probably will be for your child, too.

When your- child is young is a great time to show them that you approach these issues with certain kinds of values, such as these:

  • No question or topic is off limits. It’s best to answer all questions, in an age-appropriate way, and in a way that feels right to you. You want your child to know that his curiosity is always welcome.
  • Honesty is the best policy. “Your dad and I don’t always agree about things. We try to listen to each other and have good conversations. Sometimes we make mistakes and we’re not kind enough to each other.”
  • Sensitivity to other people’s feelings is important. “Your dad was upset last night. I think I should do something nice for him this evening. What do you think he would like?”

Our children are always watching us closely. When answering questions that make us uncomfortable, it’s not the information per se that matters most. It’s the openness, awareness, and sensitivity with which we respond.

Do this one thing

When your child asks you a difficult question, focus on answering with openness, awareness, and sensitivity. Your child may learn more from the way you answer the question than from the information you provide.

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Why Difficult Questions Are the Best Questions

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Daniel Willingham, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do, p. 45.
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