The Wondering Child
( Originally Published 1916 )
CURIOSITY has been called the mother of all knowledge and the nuisance of all mothers. No doubt there is some truth in both characterizations, although much of our knowledge comes to us quite uninvited and many mothers do not find the perpetual queries of their children at all annoying.
The normal child begins to ask questions in the fourth year of his life, usually, and how long he will keep it up depends very largely on outside circumstances. It is quite possible to make him stop very soon, as by making sure that the questions never bring any satisfying results. It is also possible to make him continue the practice for many years, as by making sure that the asking of a question always brings an interesting or satisfying result. The great explorers and discoverers were the boys and girls who retained the habit of asking questions, and at the same time acquired some skill in getting their questions answered.
We must not suppose, however, that all questions are worth while, or that all kinds of questions are equally worth encouraging. On the contrary, it is very easy for the little boy or the little girl to get the habit of asking questions that should be promptly and decidedly discouraged.
Little Henry missed his father after two days of absence, and asked his mother, "Where is papa?" The mother answered that he had to go to Chicago. " Why did he have to go to Chicago? " asked Henry. This question was the natural response of the child to a new intellectual situation; it was the first time that he had ever heard of anyone being obliged to do such a thing. The mother then answered, " He had to go on some business." But Henry still pursued her: " Why did he have to go on some business? " By this time the child had lost interest in the mysteries of Chicago and in his father's absence, and was prepared to meet each statement with a " Why? "
Strings of questions of this kind usually indicate not a live curiosity on the successive problems suggested by the answers, but a mechanical habit of saying the thing that will bring some sort of response—they are the precursors of what later in life becomes the wasteful and stupid habit of " making conversation ". While recognizing fully the child's right to have all sincere questions answered, we must also resist the tendency to encourage empty talk masquerading as curiosity. These questions certainly have the same form as those that are actuated by a genuine desire for knowledge or for understanding, and we must be constantly on our guard against being deceived by the form. This does not mean that the child deliberately seeks to deceive us by making his conversation take the form of questions. Without meaning to deceive us, however, the child soon learns what kind of talk will keep the ball rolling—if we let him.
The questions that spring from curiosity are of two main kinds, one pertaining entirely to facts, the other seeking for explanations. In answering the child's questions, there is one thing that the sincere parent must learn early—that is, how to say " I don't know." This, as you have no doubt observed, is a very difficult thing for most people to learn; but it is absolutely essential if you are to retain the confidence and respect of the learning child for a long time. Many people fear to say these words, on the supposition that to admit ignorance is to weaken the regard of the questioner. The other side of the problem is to retain the regard of the child after he finds out that you have been pretending to knowledge and understanding which you do not possess.
When it comes to questions about matters of fact—such questions as have to do with names and dates and places and authorship and geographical or scientific data—you will often be cornered for lack of the necessary knowledge. Having learned to say " I don't know " in such situations, is not sufficient. The next step is to accept your share of the child's burden, and make the problem a common one for the two of you. " I don't know, but let us see how we can find out." This should express the attitude of the helpful companion. You might send your daughter to the encyclopedia, or to some other repository of knowledge, or you might arrange to look the matter up together. When a child is actually in search of information on any subject, he ought to get it and he ought to get it while his interest is still active.
Questions as to how and why things are thus and so need to be treated in a somewhat different way. The easiest thing to do when Henry asks, " Why has the elephant such a long nose? " is to tell him that it is natural to elephants, or that God made it that way, or that this enables him to pick his food from the ground without too much effort. A little reflection will show us that such answers really do not explain. And as a matter of fact, such questions cannot be answered in a common-sense way. The best we can do is to direct the child's attention to the relation of the elephant's long nose to the conditions under which the elephant lives and gets his food and to get him interested in finding out just how the organs of the animal work. In the same way the working of a mechanism of any kind—which is likely to be especially interesting to boys—can be explained by referring to the connections between the parts, or to the relations between the processes and the products. Where the explanations can be connected with the child's earlier experiences this should always be done. So far as possible the child should be encouraged to think out the answers to his questions in terms of what he already knows; careful questioning in return for his questions will often bring the desired result.
Not only should the child's past experience be utilized in helping him answer his own questions, but so far as may be all of his past experience and knowledge should be related to every new question. To show the child that his question about where cocoa comes from means more that getting the name of a country is to give him more than he knew enough to ask for. Show him that getting cocoa means industry and trade and navigation and the hard work of thousands of men and women, and so make every question worth while that drivel will find no place in the child's day.