Last night I read this passage in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography:
Like all Xhosa children, I acquired knowledge mainly through observation. We were meant to learn through imitation and emulation, not through questions. When I first visited the homes of whites, I was often dumbfounded by the number and nature of questions that children asked of their parents — and their parents’ unfailing willingness to answer them. In my household, questions were considered a nuisance; adults imparted information as they considered necessary.
Nelson Mandela, “Long Walk to Freedom”
And now I am wondering where I can sign up to be a member of the Xhosa tribe, because my kid’s questions are killing me.
As I have always understood it, answering questions is part of a parent’s job. We want to encourage curiosity and help our children figure out how the world works, and so when they ask, “Where was I before I was born?” or “Where do flies sleep?”, we do our best to answer. Since the day Amelia learned to talk, I have been gamely answering a multitude of questions. Some of them have been fascinating inquiries that get at the nature of the universe. Like the ongoing series of questions about, “When is it going to be tomorrow?” At 3 years old, she somehow caught on to the fact that, while we were always talking about tomorrow, it never actually was tomorrow. The only place we can inhabit is “today,” and “tomorrow” is merely a mental construct. Amelia helped me realize that.
But recently, my almost-5-year-old has taken the questioning to a whole new level. She will take each item out of a cabinet, one at a time, and ask me eight questions about what it is and how it works. A box of gauze bandages, a can of shoe polish, an old child-proof clamp that holds the toilet lid closed. In a single car-ride, she will ask a hundred questions — ranging from whether she can have a brownie for snack (and why she can’t have a brownie for snack, and why she never gets to eat sweet things for snack, and whether she will ever be able to have dessert again) to whether people eat dolphins. And then, as I am trying to get her out of the car, sweating under the blazing sun, she will stop to ask what the window levers and door buttons do and why the driver gets more buttons on their door and whether she can honk the horn and … AAAAAHHHHH!
Add to this that, if I don’t answer the question within three seconds, she repeats it, over and over, the volume rising incrementally, until I answer (or curl up on the floor in the fetal position). Now, just the word “Mommy?” — the little warning bell that another question is locked and loaded — sets me on edge. Almost every day lately, I answer questions until my voice is hoarse. And when I ask her to please take a break, to please stop asking me questions for even a few minutes, she starts on another line of inquiry. “Why can’t I talk to you? Can I never talk to you again? Why aren’t you answering me? Mommy? Mommy? MOMMY!”
I am sure the people at the grocery store who have heard me saying, “I will not answer any more questions right now,” or “Stop talking to me! Please! Just give me a break!” think I am a horrible mother. But they don’t know that my daughter is perfecting a new torture method suitable to replace waterboarding. The never-ending chain of questions.