Learning to Unlearn|Jun 25, 2003 1:25 PM| by:

Growing Together

“Mumma, where do horses come from?” That is my five year old asking her millionth question today.

“From the mumma horse’s tummy,” that’s me, hoping that this would suffice.

“Nooooo! Where did the first horse come from, before there were any horses in the world?” How do they know when to ask the toughest of questions?

Back after a hard day’s work, feeding my child her evening meal and knowing that there is an important deadline to meet that night, this is not the one thing I want to answer. One of my meetings had fallen apart and another had got cancelled. After travelling for 20 km I realised that the person I had come to meet was down with viral fever. And of course, nobody had bothered to inform me. The drive back was stressful with traffic jams compounded by the feeling of having wasted so many hours of my precious time. Each hour that is wasted is a drag, especially when there is a child waiting for ma to come back.

So it is not really the best of times for that question and I feel an irritated snap coming – How do I know and anyway I’m tired and we’ll talk about this later. But then something stops me, maybe it is something in her eyes that says this question is important to her. Or maybe it is that the “we’ll talk about this later” is getting too often.

I take a deep breath, shake off the hours of frustration and begin to talk of evolution to a five year old. I speak about how God wanted to make this world and how he experimented with little creatures first – so the littlest thing he could think of was something called an amoeba. How at some point one amoeba wanted to be different and grew a little bigger than before. How one of those little things decided to become different and became a little bigger. How then plants came, then little animals and gradually after millions of years came the horse! And then the human being. And that God’s work is possibly not over and we need to become more kind and have more love and that is the way we will grow.

From the look on her face as I finish and the shine in her eyes, I can see that I have deeply connected with my child. And after just ten minutes of this intense talk, I am totally rejuvenated. The energy that had drained out during the day comes back and the rest of the evening is a joy for both of us. Had I let my tiredness get the better of me, we would have both been unsatisfied, angry at each other and this great opportunity for learning might have escaped us.

Learning, I’m discovering, as my child grows, is not when I want to teach, but when she wants to learn. I have noticed that when not interested, she will not even listen to a story, an activity she loves at most times. But when the doors to the brain are open, anything I tell registers. I remember going over the digestive system and the circulatory system like that as well. Small questions at the oddest of times – while travelling in the car, when my husband and I are discussing important financial matters, she wants to know – where does this apple that I’m eating go to, mumma? When waiting at the doctor’s clinic, she looking at her hands and wondering what the blue lines are.

Once I discovered this – that learning is when she asks and not when I have time to tell – I use a simple trick to stop the “I’ll tell you later” approach. Each time a question comes, I don’t answer at once, take time to listen and understand where the question is coming from – does she just want my attention or is she really wanting to know. I’m amazed after a little practice, how easy it is to distinguish between the two. And if I feel that she really wants to know – I take those five minutes out of a busy day and tell her.

The downside of this is that my friends think that I’m secretly teaching my kid while telling the world that I don’t believe in burdening the child with too much learning! But it is important to distinguish between the two – telling a five year old to write A to Z fifty times ‘teaches’ her nothing, but answering questions that are important, make them look like little scholars who can even talk about evolution intelligently!

Here are five ways to distinguish between attention seeking and true questioning:

1.       Is your child looking at you when asking the question? Usually pure attention seeking questions are asked in a kind of a monotone or a whine, while the real “I really want to know” questions come with a confident steady gaze.

2.       Has the question been asked many times before? Chances are that the child is just asking for the sake of asking and is saying the first thing that comes to his mind.

3.       Is the child just wanting to prolong the discussion with questions that have little meaning? They begin to use “why” after everything you say in that state. Things you tell them then are usually out the other ear.

4.       Is the question being asked to wear you down? Like “why can’t I eat ice cream in winter” kind of a question that you know is just being asked to wear you down to a yes!

5.       Does the question make you want to run? Do you get the feeling that you need a lot of time to answer this question or that he/she is too young to know this?

That is the question to answer!

Monika Halan

(Monika Halan is a New Delhi based personal finance resource person. She is attempting to integrate The Mother’s ideas on bringing up children to bring up her daughter Meera.)