Once upon a time there was a delightful advertisement that had a boy catching his father off guard: ‘Dad, why did they build the Great Wall of China’? He needs to know it now because he’s doing his homework while his dad is driving him to school.
Funny thing, I remember the scene but not what the ad was trying to sell us. But it was a creative and hilarious take on the type of questions every parent dreads being asked in the middle of the supermarket, or in the middle of the night or, as in that young lad’s situation, in the middle of peak hour traffic. Why is the sky blue, mummy? Why is the grass green, dad? Why is grandma so wrinkly? There’s nothing like a young child looking up adoringly at you and wanting to know if, bees sneeze to make you feel inadequate. According to James K. Wangberg who wrote the book, Do Bees Sneeze: And Other Questions Kids Ask about Insects, bees don’t sneeze because they don’t have noses. But erm and arr is the best we can do when put on the spot.
Kids aren’t trying to trip you up, they really want to know. It really is a wonderful world with new things to learn each day. I think that’s what this jaded know it all but know nothing adult misses the most.
The beleaguered dad’s response, of course, should have been, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.’ It would have tarnished his all-knowing reputation with the kid but when that lad’s hormones kicks in he’ll be a lot easier on his dad for having exposed his vulnerability all that time ago.
When they start school, there’s no competing with Miss Sassafrass or Mr Snodgrass who have all the answers (not even if your father and aunties happen to be teachers). Till then we should make the most of it. But unlike our children’s teachers, we’re there for the long haul so it’s really important to be less didactic about things and more humble. If we know, we say so, if we’re not sure we say so then offer to follow it up and get back to them. Then if we’re smart, we do get back to them. Tempting as it is to keep our children believing we know it all, it will be a much healthier parent-child relationship if children can see adults as imperfect people who happen to know more than they do by virtue of having existed longer.
The one question I didn’t torture my poor parents with was ‘where do babies come from?’ That’s because I already knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that my baby sister had sprouted from my mother’s elbow. I hadn’t heard about the whys and wherefores of procreation but my four year old logic had the birth part of it all worked out. My mother had knocked her elbow, she said. That’s the reason she was groaning, she said. Then they hauled her off to hospital and hey, presto! I had a baby sister.
I don’t blame the generation that talked in vague terms of birds and bees; those were more innocent times before deregulation and the world wide web freed us. Now we need to get to our kids before the big bad http://www.com does or worse still, before our children’s well-meaning but ill-informed friends have a word in their ear.
My brood wanted to know where babies come from, I gave them answers that suited their age range, beginning with daddy loved mummy and gave her a seed. Then they’d get all botanical about it, which took a while to untangle. But now there are (almost) as many answers as there are families. There are family units composed of two mummies, or two daddies, or grandparents and no mummies or daddies, or daddies without mummies or mummies without daddies. Today the talk would begin with every family is different and unique. Betsy’s daughter, who she calls ‘bug’, told Betsy that her friend Addie has ‘two mommies because daddy lives in a bottle.’ Betsy and her partner decided to let that one go till their bug was ready for a response.
Never say ask your father. That’s fobbing them off. You might say I will ask your father if you think he knows, or I will find out. Then do it!
New mums and dads are full of energy and idealistic fervor but their ideas are a bit like New Year’s Eve resolutions; well-meant but not always easy to keep. Give them time, life experience and a couple of good nights’ sleep.