I have never been very good at tolerating stupid questions.
Which sometimes makes it hard to parent a toddler.
PH loves the toddler years. He hated the baby stage, but he loves answering the kind of aggravating questions demanded by our child every minute of every day.
I am not so patient.
My struggle with stupid questions began in childhood.
For several years my only friend was a girl who was funny, generally kind, and shared my love of animals and imaginary play. Unfortunately for her, and me, she wasn’t very scholastic, and tended to ask what I considered to be really stupid questions.
And I didn’t handle it well.
I don’t know why stupidity sets my temper off so much, but I could never just handle stupid questions calmly.
When my friend, who was 12 at the time, asked me what “unpredictable” meant, or asked me what two times eleven was, I couldn’t just calmly define “unpredictable” or say “22” like a normal friend might.
I felt compelled to make her THINK.
“It’s the opposite of predictable. Do you know what predictable means? HOW CAN YOU BE IN GRADE SIX AND NOT KNOW WHAT PREDICTABLE MEANS?”
“How can you not know what two times eleven is? The eleven times table is easy! What’s two times one? OKAY NOW DO THAT TWICE.”
To her credit, she handled my flares of temper quite calmly.
But I knew that my meanness got to her, and if she hasn’t been in direct contact with me since we were 14, even turning down an invitation to my wedding, it’s my own fault.
I knew I had a problem, and I really did work on it.
One year I made my New Year’s Resolution “Be nicer to Lucy” and I hung it on my door so I could see it every time I went into my bedroom.
I learned to swallow a lot of mean thoughts and give more basic answers to questions that seemed painfully stupid to me. And when I couldn’t do that, I at least managed to be kinder in my explanations.
But I didn’t perfect it.
All through junior high and high school I struggled with responding to questions that I perceived as stupid without biting people’s heads off. I found that quantity mattered. One stupid question I could handle. Maybe even two, or three. But if I heard too many in a day I’d start to snap.
But every year of my life, I have gotten better at keeping my temper when people ask me stupid questions, or don’t seem to understand basic things.
For a while I even believed that I had completely overcome this problem.
If anything, I am frequently praised for my patience with difficult clients, and my ability to explain things clearly to people.
…Then I became mother to a toddler.
I’ve never been a fan of toddlers, but I am actually quite enjoying Owl’s toddlerhood. His crazy imagination, his constant amazed discovery of basic things, his ever-expanding vocabulary.
Even though I am immensely proud of how bright Owl seems to be, even though my Daycare Lady has told me before that he’s the smartest kid in her care, even though I gloat over the fact that he can do basic math, knows his colours, the planets, the alphabet, and can do 60 piece puzzles…
He is still a toddler, and therefore FULL of stupid questions.
Maybe stupid isn’t quite the right word. After all, I don’t expect him to know inherently why he shouldn’t destroy budding flowers or why it isn’t okay to hit cars with large branches. These are things that need to be taught, and I recognize that this is my job.
And I can handle that, and it’s rewarding to hear him say “OH! That a baby flower? It gonna grow into a big flower? Like dat one? Oh… I break it, it no can grow? Oh… OKAY…”
Those aren’t the questions I’m talking about. I’m talking about questions like
“Mommy, what’s DAT?”
“…That’s a tree, Owl. You know what trees are…”
“What’s that tree DOING?”
“… it’s growing. It’s being a tree. What do you mean, what is it doing?”
Other times he invents crazy manoeuvres and then asks me to name them. He’ll put his head between his legs while flapping his arms like an autistic chicken and say “Mommy, what I doing??”
And on one level, yes, I understand that he thinks the world is just full of actions with names, and that he hopes that by inventing them one by one he can learn ALL the words. I also understand that he believes that his father and I are bottomless pits of words for every conceivable thing.
Intellectually, I understand.
But my gut reaction is to think “If you don’t know what you’re doing, THEN WHY ARE YOU DOING IT?”
So I really have to take a deep breath before I try and answer his crazy questions because otherwise I might say just that.
And sometimes there’s just no answer.
For example, his developing brain doesn’t perceive things as wholes the same way that mine does. When I see a car, for example, I see a CAR, not a fender and windows and hood and wheels and radio antenna and so on.
But he sees things in bits.
So he’ll ask me for the name of part of something and often, that thing doesn’t have a separate name. Not one that I know, anyway.
“What’s dis, Mommy?”
“That’s a slide, honey. You know what a slide is.”
“No, dis! What’s DIS?”
“That’s the slide.”
“No, DIS I SAID.”
“That’s the slide part of the slide, Owl. It’s the part you slide on. It’s called a slide. I don’t really know what else to tell you.”
“Oh. DIS is a slide?”
“YES, OWL, IT’S A SLIDE. THE SLIDE IS A SLIDE!”
Sometimes I have an answer, but Owl isn’t intellectually capable of understanding it, and I end up frustrated because I WANT to explain, but I know that it’s way above his comprehension.
“Mommy, what’s dis?”
“It’s a leaf, honey. You know what leaves are.”
“That’s the leaf.”
“NO. DIS!! DIS ON THE LEAF.”
“Oh, that… that’s… part of the leaf honey.”
“What dis part called?”
“It’s… it’s called the vein of the leaf.”
“Oh. The vein?”
“Yes, Owl. Now come on, honey, we’ll be late for school.”
“Mommy, what dis vein FOR?”
“It… it…” and mentally I try and figure out how to explain that vascularization allows the xylem and phloem access to the leaf so that glucose and minerals absorbed through the roots can be transferred to the cells within the leaf and then transfer the energy derived by photosynthesis back to the rest of the plant. But I know there’s no point, because the day before I tried to explain what leaves were for, and he found “they collect sunlight so the plant can grow” too complex.
“It’s… just part of the leaf, honey, please put it down, because it’s time to go to the car. Do you want to walk or run?”
After just half an hour with him I am simmering with suppressed frustration at his inability to understand basic concepts.
Then there’s the repetition.
I hate repeating myself.
I have ALWAYS hated repeating myself.
I had the misfortune to be born to parents who actually listened to me. They took me seriously. I never had to play Jacob Two-Two.
I remember distinctly an aunt coming to visit us, and constantly missing what I said to her the first time round, as if she automatically tuned out the voices of anyone under a certain age.
It drove me crazy.
And it still does.
When Owl doesn’t understand something, he’ll ask the same question over and over, hoping that he’ll understand the explanation the next time around.
I can’t handle it.
I remember back on Hallowe’en, he had just turned two, and I was trying to put up decorations.
“I’m decorating, honey.”
“I’m putting up these decorations.”
“Do you see this, in my hand? I’m putting it on the door. That’s what I’m doing.”
“Oh.” *pause* “Mommy…”
Cue my head exploding.
I had to tell him to sit on the chair and be quiet lest he be sent to time out, because I knew that if he asked me that question one more time, I would lose it on him.
That “what are you doing?” question is still one of his favourites – a way of starting a conversation, I think. I understand that this is what he is trying to do, but EVERY DAY when I drive him to school, he asks me what I’m doing.
OBVIOUSLY the answer is the same every day, so I’ll ask him back in the desperate hope that he would have learned the answer by now.
“Mommy…. what are you doing?”
“What am I doing?”
“I don’t know,” he says in honest-sounding bewilderment, as if I have suddenly embarked on a completely novel behaviour that has utterly perplexed him.
“I AM DRIVING YOU TO SCHOOL.”
It’s not his fault, bless his tiny little heart.
He’s a smart, curious kid, and some day I am going to LOVE talking to him about the xylem and phloem in plants, and the best way to decorate for Hallowe’en, and how one drives a car.
And I’m sure that he’s looking forward to that day, too, because he wants to know these things SO BADLY.
I think he finds his ignorance and poor language skills as aggravating as I do.
Sometimes he just doesn’t have the language to tell me what he wants to know, so I can’t give him an answer.
A lot of exchanges go like this:
“Mommy, what’s DIS?”
“That’s a log, honey. Someone cut the tree down.”
“Oh, no! Someone cutta tree DOWN?”
“Oh, no. No do dat! Someone make a MESS.”
So here I am thinking how cute and smart my kid is, and how much I love holding his tiny hand and explaining the world to him. And then…
“What’s DAT on de log, Mommy?”
“What’s what on the log, honey?”
“DAT on de log.”
“I don’t see anything on the log, sweetie. Can you point to it?”
He points in the general direction of the log. “DAT, dere on de log.”
“WHAT on the log, honey? Go touch it.”
“No. YOU touch it!”
“I can’t touch it because I don’t know what you’re talking about. You mean, this part, the bark?”
“No, DAT on the log!”
“You mean this bit of broken branch?”
“NO! DAT! DERE!” he continues to point in the general direction of the log.
“Go up to it and touch it, honey, so I know what you are talking about!”
“No, YOU do it!”
“I CAN’T TOUCH IT IF I DON’T KNOW WHERE IT IS, OWL.”
I had to lead him away, both of us nearly weeping with frustration.
His brain is so full of big thoughts that he can’t express, and my brain is so full of answers that he can’t understand.
I know that one day it will get better, and I’ll have so much fun talking to him about big things, like whether there is a Santa Claus, and what it was like growing up in the days of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
But right now, I’m stuck with conversations like these:
“Owl, honey, don’t lean on the chair like that, please.”
“Because the chair might fall over and you might get an owie.”
“Chair might fall?”
“Because if you tilt it, it will lose its balance and fall over.”
“Because things fall over when they get tipped too far over.”
“WHY, Mommy? Why fall?”
“Because things fall down if they aren’t held upright, don’t they? Don’t things fall?”
“Yeah. They do. Things fall.”
“Right. So please don’t lean on the chair… LIKE THAT, PLEASE DON’T LEAN LIKE THAT!”
“BECAUSE PHYSICS, HONEY, NOW PLEASE SIT DOWN ON THE CHAIR OR I AM GOING TO HAVE TO COUNT! 1… 2…”
He sits. We frown at each other. I take a deep breath.
“Thank you, baby. Okay, you wait there, I’m going to get your cereal now.”
“What’s cereal doing??”
“JUST WAIT WHILE I MAKE IT PLEASE.”