Pip likes to ask a lot of questions. He constantly wants to know what is going on, why a person is doing what they’re doing, how something works, or why something is the way it is. As Ava and I have tended to encourage this inclination, he sees all this questioning as something quite normal, even when the person in the wheelchair about whom he just asked is sitting right beside us.
Of the many different forms this questioning can take, the most challenging, and often most revealing, is what I’ve come to call the “why cascade.” A why cascade starts off as a single, innocent question. For example, on Saturday when Pip and I walked into the locker room at the local YMCA to put on his bathing suit for swim lessons, Pip asked me,
“Why are there lockers in here?”
It was a reasonable question, particularly since we usually change him and then carry all of our stuff with us to the pool. I took a moment to start untying his shoes and then gave him a simple answer:
“So people can leave their stuff in here while they’re swimming.”
And then the cascade began:
“Why?” Pip asked.
“Well,” I replied, “they don’t want to take their stuff with them.”
“Because they’re afraid their stuff might get wet if they do.”
“Um, well, the area around the pool is very wet.”
“Well…when people get out of the pool they often splash water on the pool deck.”
“Um, you know, bathing suits and hair when they get wet, carry a lot of water with them. Water is kind of sticky in that way.”
“I don’t know, Pip. It has something to do with water’s chemistry.”
The why cascade contains two key elements. The first is that once he has started it Pip will keep going no matter how esoteric or banal the subject matter becomes. The result of this is that every why cascade becomes a kind of micro-scale analysis of both the subject matter at hand and my thoughts about that subject. Such an analysis has a way of revealing things that I had never before considered. For example, on Saturday I could have made an argument about clutter or safety around the pool or people’s concerns about having things stolen. Instead, the most immediate thought I could access while trying to get Pip out of his clothes and into his bathing suit was one about keeping everything dry. I guess that’s my biggest concern when it come to my things and the swimming pool.
The second key element of the why cascade is that it almost always concludes with me saying “I don’t know.” Unfortunately, this is an unsatisfactory conclusion for both of us. I want to win the game by providing the answer that finally makes Pip say “Huh. Okay” (a feat that I know will never actually happen). For his part, Pip wants me to keep giving him answers because he like hearing me talk about new things. Sometimes he will even get upset with me when I tell him that I don’t know something because he thinks I am hiding thoughts from him. When that happens he will ask the last question over and over again, trying to pry some more substantial answer from me.
In moments like that, I become slightly envious of those who possess a strong religious faith. If I was Christian (or Muslim or Jewish) and I faced that impending conflict at the end of the why cascade I might be inclined to resort to the all encompassing answer of “Because God made it that way.” This reply would sound so definitive and conclusive, so much more powerful than the wimpy repetition of “I don’t know.” It makes me understand better why religion is so important and so vital for a great many people. The certainty, the finality, the closure that such faith can bring is a very potent experience. Next to this, the openness and uncertainty that comes with agnosticism or atheism feels flimsy and weak. They force me in the face of my child’s questions to say over and over “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know,” an exercise that is intensely demoralizing.
As he gets older, Pip is deploying the why cascade less and less. When he first started using this technique, there was a very purposeful and exploratory intent to his process. Now, when it shows up, it is usually a sign that Pip is excited, nervous, tired, or otherwise feeling too distracted to articulate a coherent question. Such was the case in the locker room on Saturday.
In place of the why cascade, he has begun to ask questions that take us in more complicated and abstract directions. Over the last two months A few of these questions have jumped out at me as particularly interesting and worthy of reflection. Next week, I’ll delve into three of these and reflect on what challenges they present to me as a parent.