When children ask a question, they are often seeking more that a simple answer. They are actually forming a perspective on the world and they will use the given answer to inform the way they see it. I have occasionally not given my daughter’s questions the import they deserve, but I often take them more seriously than she does. I usually do my best not to “just give an answer,” but also provide context, or better yet, and opportunity to explore farther. The outcome of this is that sometimes a moment of magic enters our lives and everybody’s world gets a little more interesting.
One of the biggest parenting choices I made came long before I had children. It came after reading a single caption to an illustration in a Psychology textbook. It explained the concept of unintended consequences of received information for children. It contained three panels. One was of a question from one of the child’s school tests. The other two were the child’s drawings of birds made before and after he or she was exposed to the test question.
The first picture of a bird was very detailed. There was a head, beak, body, wings, and legs. It had a lot going on. It looked as if a child had drawn it, of course, but it was clearly a bird and the child had put a bit of effort in to it. The test question was something such as, “Count the number of birds.” Beside it were the stylized “V” shapes often used to represent avian fowl. The las panel showed the child’s new drawing of birds. They were all blocky “V” shapes. I was aghast. The test question had, though unintentionally, radically altered the way the child saw the world. I knew then that while I obviously would want to evoke change in my future children someday, I would not want to accidentally cause a change in the same manner as that test question.
Fast forward about 13 years when I was now the proud father of an adorable three-year-old girl named Autumn (no, she was born in April, but that’s another story). Chrisie and I took every advantage to help teach her things. One thing we did in the car was ask her about traffic lights. We started when she was younger by asking her what color the light was. Later, we explained the significance of each color. One night we had the following conversation:
“Autumn, what color is the traffic light?”
“Red, so Mommy better stop.” We chuckled. When the light turned green she said, “Mommy, the light’s green, you can go now.”
“Autumn,” she asked, “what does yellow mean?”
“The light’s green Mommy.” I’m sure she gets that from me.
“But what if it were yellow?”
My wife looked over at me and said, “She gets that from you, you know.” See?
She addressed Autumn again, “Even though it’s green now, if it was yellow, what would it mean.”
“Very good, Autumn!”
We continued down the road a bit when Autumn’s small voice floated from the back, “What does blue mean?”
I was about to explain that blue usually means sad. Then I thought of interesting birds morphing into boring blocky “V’s.”
“What do you think blue means?” I asked. I turned around to watch her answer. She scrunched her face and pondered.
“Blue means laugh!”
I broke into a grin. Chrisie’s musical laughter echoed the excitement in my heart. We started quizzing Autumn and discovered that orange means smile and purple means quiet. Her world is a much more interesting place.
Now, I know that most still view blue as a melancholy color (and that Autumn may even believe that herself someday), but for me it will always mean laugh, if for no other reason than a conversation we had months later.
We were walking outside and I asked her, “Why does blue mean laugh?”
“Just look at the sky, Daddy.” So I did. I looked up at the wondrous blue sky and couldn’t help but laugh.
“See?” she giggled.
Yes, I did see, in a way I never had before.