Children ask an awful lot of questions. When they are not giggling, playing or avoiding bath time, this seems to be their primary work. They note something, like the colour of the sky, and they are not content to enjoy that spectacle until you answer, probably with the help of Google, “But, seriously, why is it blue?”
The questions, as care-givers will so often tell us, just don’t stop. On the last occasion a parent was sufficiently desperate to ask me to babysit, a little girl posed at least ten questions I could not answer over our afternoon tea. Why do you grow flowers? How do flowers grow? Why are some of those flowers bigger than the other flowers, and, why do ladies wear makeup?
After failing to explain botany to my interrogator, I did give her last question a try. I told her that historically, the facial appearance of western women was seen as indivisible from their morality, and that this old prejudice was exploited by mass capitalism to produce a profit. She then said, “you’re boring” and asked if I could paint her little nails the same colour as the sky.
When we are small, we ask questions, even if we cannot grapple with their answers. As we age, and are weighed down by both labour and the fear others will think us foolish, we tend to stop asking out loud. Some of us even stop seeking answers altogether, and become confident that we know these anyhow. We don’t even retain the confidence of a child to say, “that answer is too hard for me, I would rather have a manicure”.
Nail polish, I think, is a perfectly valid response to difficult problems. Try to explain aerodynamics, telephony or the reasons you like Taylor Swift to me, and I am likely to think about all the new season’s bright gel colours. There’s some stuff that is just too much bother for me to understand. At some point or another and by some accidental means, I resumed the habit of the child and began to recognise my intellectual limits.
When we are small, we ask questions, even if we cannot grapple with their answers.
There’s just some stuff I will never know, that will bore me before I ever understand it. I don’t “get” climate science beyond a basic level, but I know that the rational choice is to trust it while I get my nails done—in an environmentally aware salon, of course. I don’t understand immunology, but I know that vaccinations are a top idea.
There’s a little bit of stuff I know. The softer science of political economy interests me, and I like to try to work that puzzle out. I’ve been reading about it, even writing about it, for years and, like they say, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. Sometimes, if I am nutting out a problem like “why did certain kinds of people elect that racist Halloween pumpkin?”, I might come up with several answers. Heck, I might even think about going to the salon myself, and set aside the theorising for the afternoon. This thing, about which I have a slightly above-average understanding, is often too much for me.
But, apparently, there are people, who know as much or even less than I do, who think that they’ve got politics worked out to the extent that not only can they explain it to themselves, but they are able to explain it to children.
After last week’s election result, there have been dozens of prominent letters written to children. The filmmaker Aaron Sorkin wrote one to his daughter. A writer in the US wrote one about what she might write to her daughter. There are thousands of posts on social media saying, “Last night, I explained the terrible political future to my children”, often claiming that their toddlers immediately understood. Which I find difficult to believe, considering that many of these authors don’t have any explanation for this particular result other than “it’s really bad”.
Let’s leave aside the good sense claim that kids should probably be spared political conversation—they’ll have a lifetime of that to endure and, really, these small persons haven’t yet grown a brain cunning enough to avoid the bath, let alone grasp the subtleties of voting blocs. Let’s admit that in our current fixation on explaining things to children, we might not be avoiding explaining things to ourselves.
As it turns out, a good answer to the question, “why is the sky blue?” is difficult to deliver. “Why do populist ratbags gain power?” is even more fraught. But, we must, openly and fearlessly, address this complex problem if we want out little ones not to inhabit a question we could never be bothered answering. Because we were too busy making claims that we could understand it so well, we could even explain it to a child.