This past week at Doodlebug Club, I was working with a 4-year-old named Stacy, whose favorite word was why. I talk to preschoolers just like I talk to adults, and of course, I value their questions and input the same way. So I answered his questions the same way I would answer an adult’s questions. Typically, as we begin each art project, I explain individual steps, and continue to do so throughout the project just so everyone remembers what comes next. At each point of my explanation, Stacy asked, “But why?” The gist of our conversation:
Me: Why are we adding food coloring to the corn syrup? To make it blue.
Stacy: But why?
Me: So it will look like water.
Stacy: But why?
Me: Because fish swim in water.
Stacy: Oh yeah. This is sticky. Do fish swim in sticky water?
Me: Uh, well…not really. But our water is pretend water, not real water.
Me: Because painting with just plain water would make our paper soggy (I didn’t want to go into the whole medium of watercolor art at that particular moment). I continued, staving off another “why” that was on the tip of his tongue by saying: Okay, grab a paintbrush, dip it into the paint, and let’s paint our fishbowls.
Stacy: But why is this water?
And so it continued in sort of a circular pattern. It got to be quite comical – it was like I was justifying each step of this creative process. I found myself anticipating each “why” and trying to come up with a decent, specific-as-possible answer. His mom was sitting back laughing at me, never intervening to stop the flow of whys – I’m sure she was eager to share the answering of questions with another grown-up.
Suppose Stacy was truly intellectualizing about this project, really putting a lot of thought-space into figuring out why he’s spending an hour of his day painting a paper fishbowl with corn syrup. (My academic background is heavy in post-modernist theories, so bear with me here…)
Consider the questions behind Stacy’s simple question “why”: why are we making a painting with dyed corn syrup and pretending it’s water? What does it all mean? In the grand scheme of things – what do construction paper fish really symbolize? What does the corn syrup (sticky water) symbolize? Are the fish struggling in their fishbowl existence? Is this art project a commentary on humanity and its interactions with the animal kingdom?
Clearly, Stacy was searching for deeper meaning.
On a related note, one of my co-workers has a favorite YouTube video of a toddler who has just learned the word “no.” And it’s her most.favorite.word.ever. We now quote this video (No! No! No!, including shaking our heads) pretty frequently around the museum, especially when faced with a work-project we aren’t looking forward to:
I suspect this is a deeper issue than just having mastered the word “no.” Baby Charlotte suddenly realizes that she has power – the power to make decisions and pronouncements. Maybe she feels that personal cleanliness should be a personal decision. Maybe she has disagreements with certain family members. Maybe she is not a fan of the mindless consumerism of modern Christmas celebrations. Maybe she is completely opposed to personal wealth and therefore would find a million dollars objectionable. Maybe she really does not like going night-night. Clearly, she’s dizzy with new-found decision making possibilities.
These are the parenting issues that keep me up at night. Oh, what will my answers to these deep, thought-provoking questions be when our kid begins philosophizing?
On the subject of the question why: pre-parent enthusiasm aside, I won’t lie–at the end of a long day of answering pointed questions, just like most other parents, I imagine there will come moment of exasperation wherein I will utter the words all kids hate – those very words I swore, as a kid, I’d never say: “because I said so.”