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How I Handle the Linguistic Challenge of Answering My Kid's Question

Many years ago, when my daughter Sarah was a four-year-old, 35-pound dynamo, her every third sentence was "Why?".

I expected that, of course. I'd read all the parenting books and seen all the instructional videos. I knew that little kids are supposed to try your patience with endless queries about how the world works.

So I was prepared for questions about why is the sky blue (because it looks nicer than red) or why do we eat at the dining room table (to give the TV a chance to cool off). But I wasn't prepared for the other aspect of question-answering: clarity of language.

One of those modern analytical philosophers who's not Bertrand Russell once said: "Let's get clear about language." What he meant, presumably, was that we can better understand our world through a clearer understanding of the structure of language. When it comes to young children, however, a better prescription might be: "Let's get clear with language."

So often, I found that I stumbled over the simplest explanation in reply to one of Sarah's questions. It wasn't that I didn't know the answer (although I must admit that I never used the phrase "I don't know" more in my life). It's just that over the years I had gotten sloppy with my language. I tended to give vague or somewhat convoluted replies.

With adults, this is seldom a problem because generally no one cares what I say or they aren't listening in the first place. But with little kids, it's different. They ask a question and they really want an answer. That little face staring intently up at you is not going to accept pedantry or sophistry in reply.

When Sarah asked "Why Daddy?", I usually knew the answer. That was the easy part. The hard part was explaining the answer in simple, straightforward and accurate terms.

For example, Sarah once asked me how long it would be before her favorite TV show came on (with the implicit subsidiary question of when would Dad stop watching the news). I told her it would be about ten minutes. She said "That's a long time, right Dad?"

'I know the answer to that one,' I thought. And I started in with my explanation. "Well, yes, ten minutes can be a long time in certain circumstances. On the other hand, ten minutes can often pass very quickly. It's all relative but....."

As my explanation degenerated further into adult nonsense, I could see from the look on Sarah's face that I had not given her the information she wanted. And I probably hadn't provided much information to anyone else for that matter.

With the hard, cold four-year-old face of reality staring up at me, I realized that what we had here was a failure to communicate. And I was the one failing.

So I reset my mind from bureaucratese to clear kid language and thought things through a bit more. "Yes, Sarah, ten minutes is a long time." All she had meant was that waiting ten minutes for something you really like is hard. That's all.

This linguistic dance went on all the time. Sarah would ask me the difference between day and night and I would struggle with the accuracy of my reply.

"Well, the sun comes up in the morning and sets at night. Well, be more accurate, we live on the Earth and it rotates so that part of the time the sun faces us and....."

After a while, I usually hit on a response that was both accurate and understandable. And when I did, Sarah would let me know by asking for her favourite explanation to be repeated as in: "Tell me about the Earth turning around, Daddy." She recognized the best use of language and wanted me to repeat it, perhaps more for my benefit than hers.

Childhood must be exasperating. Lots of simple questions with equally simple answers that have to be derived from linguistically challenged adults. Luckily, Sarah was usually patient with me and let me slowly work out the wording of my replies. But sometimes the exasperation became too much and that little clear-thinking creature simply said: "That's not it, Daddy!" as if to say "Come on Dad, you can do better. Try again." And I could; so I did.

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