By the age of five I was already an Elephant’s Child, filled with insatiable curiosity, and often my father’s despair. But he always did his best for me, and thanks to him I’m still curious, and thanks to the television and other modern resources I can go on having my questions answered even now, over sixty years later.
Every child asks questions, many questions, and if encouraged will do so for hours, days, weeks, months and even years. Children’s eyes and minds are wide open to the world around them, to the strange, the beautiful, the ugly and peculiar; and when they’re small they notice the small around them. Everlastingly curious they wonder about everything and everyone they see. They’re eager for knowledge.
“What?” is usually the easiest question to answer, though some handy reference books together with Google and Wikipedia may be a help.
“Where?” is also fairly straightforward, although you may need a good up-to-date atlas to make sense of the answer. Once the concept of maps has been grasped, atlases are fun to explore. Hours can be passed stretched out on the floor with a large world atlas, following the courses of rivers and mountain chains, and figuring out their names.
“Who?” is simple, although once the name / title / job required has been found the child is likely to branch off to other more difficult questions.
“Which?” comes up less often, usually in the form, “Which animal has the longest neck?”, or “Which is the oldest tree in the world?” Often a variant of the “What?” it’s not too hard to deal with. A current edition of the Guiness Book of Records, or internet access to that information will generally provide the needed answer.
“How?” is harder, although even that can usually be dealt with – and as long as it’s not a ‘Don’t try this at home’, doing it together can be fun, and highly instructive to both adult and child.
But the most frequent question, the most dreaded question – unavoidable and inevitable as the rising of the sun is “Why?”
“Why?” makes the adult heart sink, for nine times out of ten the answer cannot be totally guaranteed, and even if it is, one “Why?” leads to another as surely as day leads to night! When you’ve carefully explained that animals have longer or shorter necks to be able to eat what others can’t reach, and so through evolutionary time the Giraffe has become tall enough to pluck the leaves from the treetops; despite the logic and conclusiveness of your answer, the child before you will find another “Why?” to throw at you – probably one which makes no sense at all to an adult mind.
It’s not so bad when the children are small and the “Why?”s are genuine. But a time comes when, for fun, they think up more and more improbable “Why?”s, and the whole exercise becomes a major form of torture for the luckless adult who finds it almost impossible not to become rattled and angry. At this point resources of distraction are required, so that their curiosity can be directed into new and more harmless channels.
There are of course two basic and utterly vital rules for any adult faced with a curious child:
– NEVER SQUASH OR MOCK THEIR CURIOSITY!
Never tell them off for asking questions. There may be moments when you suggest they ask again at a more appropriate time; but treat their questions seriously, they’re important to them.
Never make fun of them in front of other adults. Adults have vast funds of knowledge and they want their rightful share of it.
– YOU MUST BE HONEST!
Never make up an answer. If you don’t know say so, and suggest where and how the answer might be found. If you promise to do the research, remember the promise and do it! Broken promises are far more than a disappointment to the young child, and terribly destructive of confidence and trust.
A child’s curiosity is a gift to the adults around them. It re-opens eyes that have ceased to see; it revitalises the senses of wonder and fun, (there’s so much to laugh at in the world); it keeps grey cells working, and fends off the miseries and grumbles of old age; it’s a great motivation for learning to use the internet and other modern technologies (if we answer their questions now, they’re far more likely to help us with ours in the years to come). So remember to celebrate the lively minds and everlasting curiosity of children!