When Children Ask
I took my daughter to the pediatrician. We were sitting in the waiting room with all the other folks and kids. Mostly moms. There are a lot of moms who go to doctors with children. I was basically in a big room full of moms and kids. A few dads.
Sitting alongside a child during idle moments is when kids ask questions. Some are pretty benign, like, “will you tie my shoe?” Others are a little more complex. Like, “Why was Charles Manson so bad, daddy?”
So, to the mom listening to a video on speakerphone in a pediatrician’s office detailing the horrible acts of Charles Manson at 8:30 AM, just wanted to let you know that my daughter knows, too. Now. Thanks.
After the visit, my daughter wanted sushi. By then it was nine-thirty in the morning. So I did what most dads do for their daughters — I got her the sushi. It’s no video on Charles Manson, I know. I’ll never be the mom my kids deserve.
While we ate, there was more of that idle time. Chatter. We had a talk about her free school lunches. My daughter told me they were not very good. The burgers used to be OK, she said, but they changed them and now the “patty is slimy.” I explained that sometimes organizations cut costs to save money, but quality can go down.
Why? she asked.
Ten minutes later I was somehow in the middle of explaining that Communism is a system of government where all the people’s needs are provided for but it does not work very well, in part, because of a resultant drop in quality and also that services suffer, as does the experience of human expression. Everything just becomes, well, slimy.
Speaking of cutting costs, which we weren’t, I want to say that my daughter got new shoes last week. The laces are shorter than usual; I guess someone saved a nickel down the line by trimming two inches off. I paid eighty dollars for these sneakers. The laces are so short I can barely tie them much less provide the double knot she needs. So they are eighty dollar slippers, which is passable until gym class. Quality can suffer in the unabated capitalist free market, too, I guess. Slimy.
But back to the questions kids ask.
The easy ones can be super tricky, not as easy as you first think. They can challenge our conceptions and the foundations of things we think we know.
Q: Daddy, do eagles have teeth? Yes. No. No.
Q: Do cockroaches want to live? Sure?
Q: Am I the best singer you ever heard? Yes.
Q: Do trees feel pain, daddy?
I would say no, but I just finished the first half of The Hidden Life of Trees, a book which threw into question everything I thought I knew about trees. They may not feel pain, but they apparently know death and, when they sense danger or their doom is near, they begin to offload all their nutrients into an expansive and shared root system with other trees and fungi, so the nutrients are not wasted.
Sometimes the questions turn antagonistic. I am not sure why. OK, I know why — it’s because I do not have an infinite amount of patience. But still. Come on.
What is Taiwan? It is an island is East Asia. Why is it called Taiwan? Because that is what they named it. But what does Taiwan mean? I don’t know, but it doesn’t have to mean anything. It can be just a name. Why don’t you know? Why don’t I know? Because maybe it doesn’t mean anything! It means Taiwan!! Eat your cereal so we can go to school!
Or, Son, look out the window. That is a planet. Isn’t it cool? It looks like a star. Yes, but it is a planet. How can it be a planet if it looks like a star? Because planets can look similar to stars. But that is a planet. OK? If it was a star, why would I say look at that planet? It’s a planet. Well it’s a stupid planet if it looks like a star. Go to bed! Stupid planet. ( … and crossing Astronomer off the list of occupational possibilities).
I am not always ready to talk about some things they ask about. Like heaven. Yesterday I spent a half an hour answering questions about heaven. It started simply enough.
Q: Will you wait for me in heaven, daddy? Because you’ll be there a looooong time before me. Yes.
Q: When you go to heaven, can you promise not to watch me in the bathroom? I promise.
But quickly turned beyond my capacity.
Q: How far up in the sky is heaven? It’s not really up in the sky. It’s … somewhere else?
Q: Is there room in heaven for everyone? Uhhh … most?
Instead of advocating or defending the traditional definition of the Christian Heaven, I tried to focus on what faith meant, in terms of accepting something you cannot prove or have not yet experienced fully. Neither of them asked me if there are bunnies and dogs in heaven, but I would very much like to know the answer to this. Also, I would like to know if there is beef jerky, and will it still be bad for me to eat. And … will I be bald and have a potbelly in heaven, too? Because whose version of perfect fulfillment is that going to be?
My daughter thinks God is big and sits in a chair, is nice and happy, not mean. When she asks if this is right, I can get by with a nod and a smile.
However, when my son asserts to me that heaven is just a place you go until moving on to the next heaven, which was the real heaven, I somewhat fumble the response, having never even considered this multi-paradigm before. Is he inventing a quasi purgatory at seven?
Q: Daddy, do you love me more than the universe is wide? Yes.
This quickly became an inquisition by both kids on what, exactly, were the outer limits of the universe.
Q: How big is it? Really big.
Q: How do we know? Science?
I told the kids that the universe, if it had an end, therefore must be inside something else, unless simple nothingness was an option. My son’s little mind was blown, “Whoa!” was all he could muster. I’m just staying a step ahead of these kids.
One day my daughter asked:
Q: Daddy, do you know what it is like to be nobody, because sometimes I feel like I’m nobody. Sure, I’ve been alone.
No daddy, not alone, but like, you’re nobody, floating in darkness.
What the hell is going on in my minivan? I don’t have an answer, but assured her she was never truly nobody because she was loved by her mommy and daddy, then I fiddled with the buttons on the radio.
I can’t always just make up an answer because kids have a capacity to remember things from years ago that I’ve long forgotten — mostly promises to get a puppy, but also misstatements about cars running on gravy and something about a bouncy land made of marshmallow I swear I visited as a teenager.
And yeah, that’s how I see the world: all gravy and marshmallows.
Some of the tough questions can’t be answered without peeling back at least one layer of childhood innocence.
Q: Why don’t you have a job?
Q: Why we moving to a different church?
Q: Why does it hurt to give birth?
Q: What does the word “colored” mean?
For these, I usually exhale a bit before getting into it. Hold the gravy.
I don’t remember being the type of child who relentlessly asked a barrage of questions. Maybe my mom had it easy. Maybe I stopped after only three “but why?’s”. Or maybe she knew enough to head off the next “but why” by giving definitive-enough answers to end any further inquiry.
I remember asking her how she knew who the voice was singing on the radio. Then I followed up with asking why the religious leaders killed Jesus.
As a kid, I believed Jesus was the last person who knew the ancient secret of coming back from the dead, but people were jealous and they killed him. So he used his secret one more time before leaving us all without it forever, each to die without hope of coming back to life, ever. In the history of all the Christian faith, has anyone every gotten the whole point of the redemption story more backwards?
I remember my mom nodding as I explained this, smiling in the rear view mirror.
To me, she knew it all. Her grinning silence was affirmation of my suspicions. Now that I am a parent, I realize she was probably actually grimacing in pain while mentally calculating the fastest cost benefit analysis ever between the results of simply letting me think I was hitting the nail on the head vs having to explain the origins of the New Testament’s Eucharistic rites and belief in fulfillment of the Torah and Old Testament prophets, and how insanely 180 backwards my interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ mission was. You go mom.
In the pediatrician’s waiting room, my daughter asked me one more question.
Q: Daddy, pull my finger?
I do. She rips a grinding fart. We both laugh.
I don’t always know how to explain the world to my children, but at least sometimes we can laugh about it. My daughter leans close and asks, Daddy, does mommy fart? No. No. Yes. Maybe a little.