The Right Question
My 11 year old asked me what rape is.
Without missing a beat, I said “carnal knowledge of a woman without consent.” She said okay, grabbed a ball, and went outside happily. Thank you, Atticus Finch! If you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird, the education system failed you, because it’s one of the greatest books of all time. In it, the main character Scout asks her uncle the same question (what is rape), who deflects it with a story. Her father answers it directly with those very words…his point was to always be truthful. Of course, we later had a deeper discussion with our 11 year old about why she was asking and where she had heard the word.
Kids are always asking questions, some of them tougher than others. If they are asking, then they are encountering what it is they are asking about. My husband and I vowed to always be truthful when giving an answer, but to withhold the gory details.
When our eldest was 5, she asked the ever dreaded question “Is Santa Claus real?” I slowly asked “well, what do you think?” to buy some time. Turns out the real reason she wanted to know was because she was terrified that in the middle of the night a man was sneaking into the house. We explained who St. Nick was, the beauty of the story, how we give gifts in God’s name, etc. and she was so relieved. Unfortunately, she promptly ran next door to the neighbor’s house with that broadcast, which didn’t go over too well.
9-11. That same neighbor told her 1st grade daughter that someone accidentally flew a plane into a building. All the kids were talking about it at school and she was angry and confused and asked me what happened. I said, “Ask your mother.” Wasn’t going to be the one who destroyed yet another myth and be the scourge of the neighborhood again. We didn’t let our kids watch the news but explained that a group flew two planes into two buildings in NY and a lot of people got hurt, even died. That we needed to pray for them and help in any way that we can. That their two aunts who lived there were okay. That bad things happen but we’ll be alright. That every day is a gift. Truth builds trust, and asking questions is the way we search for the truth.
Do jellyfish get cold? Where is heaven? How do you make french onion soup? Why does she get to go first? What kind of car is that? What is that smell? Why do you always do that? Does everybody get one? What if, what if, what if? Or when a loved one died, along with sobbing, gasping, and tears, “Why?” Those precious questions become tools for exploring and understanding the world around them and how to navigate through it.
They soon learn that parents don’t have all the answers, and as time passes a barely perceptible shift happens and we begin to ask them questions about the ever changing world, all the while enfolding it with what we know to be true. Trusting that they have the tools to make their way. That they know that it's not always about the right answer, but finding the right question.
*Muhammad Suryanto, Abstract Painting