The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

August 1, 2013

Sarah Coyne: Inquisitive kids find their own answers

By Sarah Coyne
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Two of my three children are long past the age of rampant questioning. No longer do I fear mile-long strings of "why" or plot ways to escape their everlasting presence. Their toddler-ish habit of lobbing question after pointless question has faded into something altogether more chillingly brilliant.

Now, they don't merely question physical facts -- they question reason and authority. They question equality, fairness, intention, emotion and truth.

I call it chilling because since they've begun questioning my intentions, I no longer have unchecked control over my children.

But the reason I find their newest line of inquiry brilliant as well is because I can see that it's leading them towards maturity and independence. They are trying to discover what makes relationships work and how respect is garnered.

They won't settle for age, size, or power as indicators of authority just because the older, bigger, more dominant person in the room dictates it to be so. It's beautiful to behold, and I hope they can manage to hold onto it throughout life's bullying patterns.

Still, it's unsettling to be on the receiving end of what is often confused with run-of-the-mill back talk.

When our intentions and reasons are questioned by kids, our first instinct is to feel affronted or challenged. Not only does it take the wind out of our righteous sails, but we feel like someone so small should have no place questioning our authority. We know why we've given our answers, and that's that.

But it is such a bad thing if our kids also know why?

One hurdle in making this approach work is that sometimes we can't quite name our reasons. Emotions are tricky and while we're in fight-or-flight mode, we can make parenting decisions that don't always pan out to be reasonable in the end.

Another drawback comes from giving too many answers. I don't mean that our children's questions are better off ignored, but that sometimes they'll learn more from answering their own query. Sometimes it's more important for our kids to work out the "why" than to have it spoon-fed into their waiting minds.

For example, when my child asks why she can't have candy with breakfast, I could easily and quickly list the reasons. But if I restate her own question and pose it back to her, she gains a solidified chunk of knowledge with her answer.

When she asks why she can't have a friend over to play, and I say "You tell me, why can't you?" she'll remember that an earlier bout of disregard at chore time came with a negative effect.

When she asks me what's so important about keeping our house clean in the first place, and I give the question back to her, she'll learn to think about the reasons behind caring for our spaces.

Accepting a verbal lashing from our child -- or anyone else, for that matter -- is not OK. But back and forth questioning with calm, reasonable voices is a healthy way for our kids to figure out the world. And when the act of allowing our kids to be inquisitive is combined with plenty of opportunities for them to answer their own questions, true learning will happen.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife.blogspot. com.