Monday, September 15, 2014

The Dawning of the Age of Questioning

Pumpkin is seven and a half now, and for the last six months or so, we have been answering a lot of questions. Very little gets past her these days. Things that used to float over her head she now reaches up, catches, brings down and insists we explain.

For the most part this is easy enough to do, if a bit tiring. For all the hand-wringing in some quarters about how same-sex marriage would be hard to explain to children, it was one of the easiest things we've explained this year. We have not had the occasion to explain the fact that there are transgender people yet, but I don't anticipate that will be all that hard to explain when the time comes. Explaining why other people have such a problem with LGBTQ people will be a lot harder.

One result of the increase in questions is that our discussions of racism have gone a little deeper recently. I expect my annual attempt to make MLK day mean more than they teach Pumpkin in school will be more challenging next year. I guess one advantage of stumbling through a discussion for the last two years is that at least I won't be going into this next discussion without some practice.

We have the privilege of metaphorical and physical distance from the recent events in Ferguson, MO, and I chose not to bring them up with her. I am not at all sure this was the right approach. I think it is time for Pumpkin to start knowing more about how the world really is, ugly injustices and all. But... she is a very sensitive kid- she can't even watch most movies, because they scare her. So I am struggling a bit with how to start teaching her about just how ugly the real world can be. Mostly I have been letting her questions guide us. If she notices something and asks about it, I explain honestly. If she doesn't notice, I mostly let it pass, except I have started pointing out and discussing how not everyone gets treated the same by other people, and helping her see that this is not fair or right.  I am painfully aware of how so many parents don't get the luxury of going slow with their sensitive kids. I am also painfully aware of the limits of my own knowledge in this area. I have been trying to work on this, but I know I will fall short of ideal. I will just have to explain that, too.

To be honest, I am also struggling with explaining how the world can be unsafe for her. Here again, we've settled on letting her tell us that she is ready to know something by asking us about it. Therefore, while she knows our rule is that she can talk to people she does not know, she is not to go anywhere with a stranger, she doesn't really know the reasons behind that rule. I assume she'll ask before too long, so I'm thinking about how I'll explain it without scaring her unduly.

I've also started laying the groundwork for our eventual talk about how what she does with her body is up to her, and how if anyone makes her do something she doesn't want to do, that is never, ever her fault, no matter what. Obviously, when she's a little older, we'll have to add in the talk about the things she might want to do... but I've got a few years left before I have to face that one. Presumably, I'll grow into it. Right now, I'm just working to not let my anger about needing to explain bodily autonomy to a seven year old interfere with me actually doing that job well.

We've had a lot of more prosaic questions, too. Mr. Snarky and I trade off explaining various science-related questions, based primarily on which of us has a better memory of the subject. This means that I have to explain just about everything biological, and he is in charge of explaining optics and electricity. She hasn't asked too many questions about history yet, but the American history questions are mine to field. I'm not sure I can count on Mr. Snarky for English history, either- he completely flubbed a question about Guy Fawkes day, and in the end I and another Kiwi who was there at the time had to piece together an answer for what it was from our vague recollection of high school history and checking the Wikipedia article on our phones.

By far the hardest question to date has been one that came up quite early in this phase. We were at a beach in Coronado with some friends from day care. One of the fathers had built a small boat, and he was taking two kids at a time (plus one other grown up) out on the bay to fish. The other kids and parents were playing on the beach. One of the other fathers chastised his daughter for not finishing her applesauce, and made an offhand remark about how there are starving children in China who would love to have her applesauce. It was a time worn cliche (although I have no idea why he picked China), and I didn't really notice it at first. But then Pumpkin looked at me, with deep worry in her eyes and asked, "Really?"

"Yes, sweetie, there are really children in China who don't have enough to eat."

"But just there?"

"No, sweetie, there are children who don't have enough to eat in a lot of places."

"But not here, right?"

"No, sweetie, there are children here in America who are hungry. That's why we donate to the food drive every year." (We do always explain that when we're taking the bag in to donate, but I guess that explanation was one of the things that floated over her head.)

She dropped the subject at that point, but the look on her face clearly said "WTF is wrong with you grown ups that you haven't fixed this?"

I had no answer to that question, and still don't.


  1. Anonymous4:55 PM

    Sadly, I think my own 7 year old has gotten used to my depressing answers to depressing questions. I guess with us, there's the benefit that these discussions often become academic because I can explain the different theories of, "why." Even if it really just boils down to different flavors of, "sometimes people suck."

    Here's some more fun ones from this summer:

    1. I've been thinking a lot about why I find same-sex marriage super easy to explain and starving kids super hard- I think it comes down to the values system we're trying to teach (and model for) her, and how two people of the same sex loving each other presents no problems in our values system, but letting people go hungry does. So I guess what I need to figure out is how to explain how we can't fix all the things all of the time, but that we should try to help where we can. And then make sure she sees us helping. I realized that we do most of our helping via giving chunks of money, and that generally happens when she isn't around to see.

      Anyway, lots for me to think about!

  2. As a scientist, I know my poor 10 year old gets overly technical answers to simple questions. But as a mom, my heart breaks for him. We are adopting him from foster care, so his life experience has taught him that the world is hard and people are cruel. I used to say, "Life is tough" as a joke to complainy people. I can't say it any more - I don't know anyone who has had a tougher life than my son. I wish he had the innocence not to know all the ways the world can hurt you!

    1. Yes, I wish all kids could have the innocence that my kids have. I really do. Sometimes people say that kids like mine are too sheltered- and maybe there is something to that. But really, what I want, is for ALL kids to be this sheltered.

  3. I have a 7.5 year old daughter too, and can really relate to that emerging awareness you describe! Re safety around strangers and bodily autonomy-- in addition to some age-appropriate books (and talking after we read those), she did a coed self-defense for kids workshop that was very helpful for practicing actual behaviors in various situations. They had a pretty empowering perspective and were very clear about bodily autonomy. It added another voice/experience for her, beyond just hearing her parents' comments.

  4. That's a good idea! I'll have to look for a class like that around here.

  5. It's a weird mix in our house. We are very open about some things, such as the have and have nots of the world. Although this is made easier by the fact that my husband family is from Haiti and my 6 year old has already been twice, so he has something concrete to draw on. But on the other hand he is very sensitive about other things, such as movies. He watched 3 minutes of the Lego movie and turned it off due to it being too scary. Which is fine with me.
    I guess what it comes down to, is we are trying to be as open as possible about things that are happening in the world but try as much as possible to be age appropriate. That being said, I am constantly amazed at how much a 6 year old and 3 year old can digest and comprehend. We have had some wonderful conversations about "hard topics".

  6. Sheena4:00 PM

    Reading your point about your daughter being sensitive with the example of movies brought to mind that images can be much scarier than words, and much harder to stop thinking about whenwe get overwhelmed. Just because someone is sensitive to scaryish movies doesn't mean s/he will respond similarly to similar content presented in a different context, i.e. a calm conversation that involves questions, responses, and the ability to stop the conversation if it feels like too much.

  7. I just watched Pocahontas with my 7 year old. That led to some pretty fabulous discussions about race and fairness. The ending of Pocahontas II (where Pocahontas doesn't marry John Smith) also led to an interesting discussion about the fact that you can love more than one person, and that loving someone (or them loving you) isn't a good reason to abandon your dreams.


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