One of my earliest understandings of that chasm between adulthood and childhood came in the back seat of our family’s station wagon. (Get your mind out of the gutter.) Sister #4 – who, I swear, could speak in full sentences the minute she was born – was asking my mother questions. Or, rather, question – singular: why? I don’t remember what the subject was, but every response my mother gave was countered with “Why?”
Now, my mother isn’t a terribly patient woman, but she is a good mother: as her knuckles tightened over the steering wheel and her teeth set on edge, she answered my sister’s questions. Each time. With remarkable clarity. One would have had to work very hard to find an opportunity to request more details. Yet, Sister #4 persisted: why?
I giggled and whispered with Sisters #2 and #3, because we knew what was coming. And, indeed, it came. My mother snapped, “Enough!”, and Sister #4 burst into vales of tears, because that was the other thing that she’d been doing since the minute she was born.
But the next day, when Sister #4 started “why?” again, my mother answered her questions.
So let me preface the next section with this: there is a time when there are too many questions, but you have to drive from your house to somewhere around the Catholic school before you actually hit that point.
Last week, as I’m sure you know, the National Post ran this ad:
The National Post printed an apology, and accepted chastisement from many people. They apologised, so I’m happy. We all make mistakes.
But that first ad, the one that started it all, had me frantic before I got half-way through the second sentence. “Don’t teach me to question….” In the simple eloquence of modern adolescent language, WTF?! Since when does asking questions “confuse” someone?
Since when does a child not question gender? Don’t all girls try to pee standing up? Don’t all boys try to nurse their stuffed animals? Asking questions is not going to convince a kid to start saving for a sex-change operation. (Though it might make it easier on the kid if they’re already thinking about that. It might let them know that they’re not the only ones in the world, which what we all want to know when something freaky and powerful starts going through our heads. God, can you imagine how terrifying it must be to know you’re in the wrong body when you’re only 6 years old?)
It seems that the Institute for Canadian Values is a bunch of adults who don’t think kids are people. They’ve – again – confused ignorance with innocence. (They’re also rather feeble at English: these are not “Canadian” values; a think-tank, by definition, encourages asking questions; Judeo-Christian intellectual perspectives rocked the world about 2000 years ago when this cool dude named Christ started asking questions.)
Asking questions is important to me, and it’s something my family has always encouraged. The only time my best friend and I have had a serious disagreement was over a question. When I was out of the room, my daughter had asked a question about homosexuality, a subject that my friend didn’t want her son to know about yet, and my friend slapped the question down without answering it. It was several days before we spoke again, and it took her a while to realise why I was so angry. She was going on and on about promising to be more open about homosexuality; eventually, I interrupted to tell her that while a little reality would be good for both her and her son, what I was defending was my children’s right to ask questions. Always. Forever. To the moment of death. And I was defending their right to have them answered – though it would have been acceptable to suggest the question be answered at another time. (I try, with fists clenched around the steering wheel and my teeth gritted, to accept my best friend for who she is, even when I think she’s wrong.)
So here I sit, at a computer – which exists because someone asked questions, writing – which I learned by asking questions. I exist because my father thought to ask my mother a question: Will you marry me? (I don’t want to contemplate any other questions that he asked, thanks.) In a few hours, I will go tutor four students, all of whom get to spend an expensive evening with me because something went wrong in the asking-of-questions and they’re not doing well in their school work. When I get home, I’ll ask my kids questions about their day because that’s how we learn about things of which we have no knowledge. My kids might ask me some questions, and one of them might be a really important question that changes their future.
Maybe tonight I’ll write a letter to Maurice Sendak, asking him to write a book about what happens to kids who don’t question things. Now that would result in a viscous and lonely childhood.