A Walk in the Woods

My kids talk a lot. It’s not exaggerating to say that 11 of every 12 hours they’re awake, they’re making some form of verbal noise. They hum, they play, they tell stories, they crack jokes, they argue, they ask for things, they say “Mom” or “Dad” a hundred million times.

The nonstop verbal flow is both blessing and curse, as you might expect, and it’s hard to remember the days when we couldn’t wait for them to start talking. Of course, there are times when I wish they could practice silence, apart from the general stress of constant noise. Especially when I take them out on nature walks, I try to convince them that there are things to be quiet for, things that only make themselves apparent when the animals and insects forget that people are present.

This rarely works, though–like a lot of folks these days, I think the quiet scares them. With Connor, I can tell there’s a sensory angle, so I try to be sensitive to that. But in Griff’s case, he tends to wax philosophical while we’re out in nature, and for all that silence would be nice, I don’t want to quash his impulse to question things.

And, sure enough, when we went out to pick plantain weed so I could make more of the all-purpose herbal salve we use instead of Neosporin, the shortest of the short ones was full of questions. “Do cats feel wind?” “Does God know we’re picking plantain?” “Is Batman Poison Ivy named for poison ivy, or is poison ivy named for Poison Ivy?”

I face competing interests when the questions start flying. On one hand, I’m a smartypants–I know a lot of stuff, and I like to give answers. On the other hand, I want my kids to learn to think critically for themselves, which requires not giving all the answers right away. I try to use my teacherly instincts to know which questions deserve a quick, factual answer, and which deserve to be reframed and teased apart so we can come to an answer together.

In short, what this means is that my answer to a question is frequently “What do you think?” or “Why do you ask?” This is not cheating, or doing a disservice to a curious kid. It gives them space to continue the conversation, to wonder out loud, to live inside the question for a bit longer.

Many parents get so freaked out, when conversation turns to the big questions, that they shut down right away until they have a chance to consult parenting books and blogs for “official” answers from the “experts.” But by the time they’ve equipped themselves with that information, the moment of the question has come and gone, and the kid has one more experience in his head that says adults don’t have the answers he’s looking for.

I took the boys to the Real Pirates exhibit at the Science Museum a few months ago. I’d been warned that the first third of the exhibit was about the Atlantic slave trade, without which there wouldn’t have been much piracy in the Caribbean or anywhere else, so it didn’t come as a total shock and I was ready to exploit the educational opportunity. When we came to the diagrams of how slaves were stacked like cordwood for the crossing, I knelt down at their level and we talked about what kind of ideas a person has to have before they can think someone should be enslaved to work for them. We talked about difference, and race, and values, and empathy, while no fewer than two dozen other parents stiff-leg-marched their kids past the whole slavery section, voices ringing with uncomfortably faked brightness: “C’mon kids! Let’s go see that pirate treasure! Won’t that be fun?”

If I were that kind of parent, I wouldn’t have kids who ask me questions. Griffin wouldn’t ask me the name of every plant and every star in the sky. Connor wouldn’t ask me, on a long drive, what kind of parents Osama bin Laden had. Maybe these sound like horror stories to some of you, whether you’re a parent or not. These conversations leave you open to questions you can’t answer, and saying “I don’t know” feels like a catastrophic failure, a loss of authority that can never be recouped.

The greatest gift you can give a child, whether it’s yours or someone else’s, is the freedom to question and not know the answer right away. It teaches them to balance the uncertainty of life with the joy of mystery, and it opens the door to more learning, more participation, more citizenship, more action. Take Rainer Marie Rilke’s advice from Letters to a Young Poet:

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language… And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer…”


  • I don’t have kids yet, but when I do, I hope I can have the open, careful and question-filled parenting style that you do. I admire your ability to be ok with answering “I don’t know. My parents were like this to a degree and I think it instilled in me a deep curiosity about the world, and a love of books. Books where all of the answers to all of my questions always seem to lie waiting for me, once I find the right one.

    • Thanks, Kassie! It doesn’t come naturally, let me tell you–I have to bite my tongue all the time to keep from just giving a snap answer in hopes of achieving a moment of peace and quiet. And sometimes, it takes a really dumb mistake to remind me to do this. Connor asked me, when he was 5, what sounded like, “Mom, what’s the Ring Cycle?” So I give him this 20 minute lecture about German mythology and opera and Looney Tunes and a whole bunch of other stuff, THEN I ask him “Why do you ask?” His answer: “Because Alvin says, ‘Whatever you do, don’t put on the rinse cycle.'” I’m thinking Wagner, he’s thinking Chipmunks. Answering with a question saves a lot of trouble. 🙂

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