Thursday, April 01, 2004
Next question, please :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
Daddy, why do seashells sound like water?" my 3½-year-old daughter, Dina, asks me one night with her usual sense of urgency.
I am sure my daughter, like many children, wants an immediate answer to this, and every, question she asks-complete with a show-and-tell demonstration, slide show and video.
I revel in how curious my daughter is, even if she expects me to be the fount of all wisdom whenever I'm within earshot.
All of her hopes, however, are not going to make me an expert on seashells. I don't know anything about them.
Telling her that would be an honest answer, but I'll have to do better than that. Trying hard to think on my feet, I make something up, saying that seashells spend so much time in the water that the sound stays inside of them forever.
Dina's question is not an easy one, and when she goes to sleep, I keep looking for an answer and do a Web search on the subject. Though I get points for effort, the answer to her question remains a mystery to me.
My daughter's intense curiosity kicks into gear the moment she wakes up in the morning.
She greets me with questions about the weather, a picture she sees in the newspaper, a word I use that she hasn't heard before and just about anything else she encounters.
I would like to say she keeps asking questions until my wife, Nancy, or I tuck her into bed at night, but that wouldn't be entirely accurate. On most nights, she gets up from her bed a few times to ask even more questions.
With Dina, I am expected to be the wise man; she is the "why's" girl.
Since Nancy and I are the first, and perhaps most important, teachers for our children, it's our job to field any questions with an open mind, an open heart and whenever possible, a straight face.
This is always challenging, especially when I am in the middle of a difficult yoga stretch I've been trying to refine for weeks.
Every day, I slowly twist and turn my body into an inverted V position, with my hands and feet on the ground and legs spread a couple of feet apart, and try to think peaceful thoughts.
"Why are you upside down, Daddy?" Dina asks one morning as she watches me stretch. Before I can answer, though, she senses an opportunity.
"Can I go under the bridge?" she wonders aloud. Before she gives me a chance to say anything, she bolts toward my legs and out the other side with fierce determination. Fait accompli.
"I am upside down," I tell her a few seconds later, "because this stretch helps my back. And, yes, you can go under the bridge if you are very, very careful. Please let me know the next time you want to do it."
She appears to understand, and I learn a valuable lesson: My daughter is going to learn at her own speed. In this case, at least I'm not toppled over in the process.
The daily challenge, of course, is to encourage my daughter to ask questions while teaching her that I can't always answer them right away and may not have the right answer anyway.
It can be tough explaining to my young inquisitor that I'm not able to talk about the shells of saltwater mollusks or any other topic because my head is buried in this month's credit-card bill, but it has to be done.
The questions, of course, don't get any easier, and neither do the answers. What binds them, though, is not their subject but the consistency of their creator: Dina does not pass judgment-she just wants to know.
One day, Nancy and I sit in our living room with Dina, our 9-month-old daughter, Ally, and Madison, our cocker spaniel.
"Mommy, am I going to die someday?" Dina asks, without a trace of fear or sadness.
The question comes out of nowhere, or at least it seems that way to us.
Nancy responds by telling Dina that every person and every animal dies, but that she will live for a long time.
I like that answer; I am not sure I could have provided it so quickly. But I sense that moms may field even more questions than dads, so Nancy might even be more used to a full-court press from our daughter than I am.
Nancy's answer, though, does not completely satisfy Dina. It just fuels her curiosity.
Dina looks at our dog, and somehow her most heartbreaking question ever leads to a practical one.
"When Madison dies," she asks with her usual ardor, "can we get another puppy?"
Nancy and I pause. "We'll see," we tell Dina. "We'll see."
I am amazed by Dina's questions just about every day now, and sometimes, it seems, every few moments.
Her questions often seem like pearls on a shore, sparkling in front of me, though by day's end there are times when I almost can't bear to be asked one more thing.
The day after Dina asks me about seashells, I surprise her at lunch by telling her a few new things I've learned about them.
I also promise her we'll go looking for real seashells some day. She smiles and seems truly pleased.
Moments later, she puts down her fork and looks intently out the window.
"Daddy," she asks, "who made the trees?"
Dan Baron is a Chicago writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.