Thursday, March 29, 2007


Most small children go through a phase where they ask "why?" about every last thing, but I really wasn't prepared for the hurricane force of two incessant, insistent little questioners.

The "why?" thing hit us suddenly, and hard, while we were travelling over the past three weeks.

Desmond has taken the lead. He'll generally start with solid, interesting questions -- say, "Why is that truck carrying pipes?" But, especially when he's tired, the questions will often become, um, a little less penetrating: "Why is that car green?" "Why does that car have wheels?" "Why is there a man in the car?" The queries come in long staccato bursts, one after the next -- mainly from Desmond, but with Nini chiming in frequently.

Sometimes, when Desmond gets excited, the questions come so fast he can hardly articulate them. When we were riding a cable car in San Francisco last week, he got so worked up that his inquiries about the brakeman and the grip and the bell and the tracks and the hills eventually degenerated into nothing more than the repeated word "why? why? why? why? why?!"

Of course, I'm delighted to have such inquisitive little children. But oh, can it get irritating. Even the most saintly, patient parent -- which I am decidedly not -- must tire of so many questions.

I've come to realize, though, that not all the questions are the same. Desmond doesn't actually expect a response every time he asks "why?" -- even he seems to know, at some level, that some of his queries are just idle chatter.

And at a certain point I figured out what was going on with the most irritating thing of all, his habit of asking the same question over and over again, well after I had given two or three increasingly detailed answers. In a slight fit of pique, I turned the question around and asked him: Des, why do you think the man is putting gas in his car?

He was delighted to be asked -- so much so, it was as if he was asking to be asked.

I've avoided, for the most part, the practice of quizzing my kids to test their knowledge -- I'm persuaded by John Holt's argument that such quizzing is often pointless or even harmful. But I'm realizing that my kids are also eager for ways to show what they know and to describe things in their own words.

So now when the "whys" come in big, long bursts, I'm learning to turn it from an interrogation into a conversation -- and finding that we all get more out of the exchange that way.
How Children Fail by John Holt
This unschooling classic details the many ways that traditional educational techniques can unintentionally drain away children's self-confidence and joy in learning. Remember being bored and peeved by stupid worksheets and quizzes when you were in school? Read this book for great insights into how not to subject your own kids to the same mind-numbing stupidities.


Anonymous said...

I think that quizzing is fine so long as theirs no pressure to answer correctly or punishment if answered incorrectly. It's the needless fear of failure that can make quizzes inhibiting.

You might like the Education Forums about Homeschooling & Unschooling.

KMDuff said...

I think there is a distinction between quizzing kids and asking questions as part of the conversation with them, especially if they are asking lots of questions.