Rosie and Della, two of our granddaughters, individually fixate on a single word that provides a clue to her personality.
Rosie, the eight-year old, is infatuated with “no”, her predictable response to questions starting with the likes of, “Have you done what I….” and directions that begin with, “Please put that….” Fortunately, it’s a response usually delivered matter-of-factly, not with foot-stomping petulance or with arms stubbornly folded or with a persecuted frown. She uses the word as her personal declaration of independence, a proclamation logical enough for a child co-existing with three siblings in a busy household. Essentially, it’s the trademark assertion of her individuality. Reasonably motivated as the habit seems at her stage, I worry about its becoming so deeply ingrained as she matures that negative responses automatically supersede positive ones. So, occasionally, I try to satirize over-use of the word. Instead of greeting her with, “Hi’ya, Rosie,” I sometimes say, “No, Rosie.” Her smile tells me she understands the jokey reference, that she realizes I’m teasing her about her pet word. I think gently mocking the negativity is more likely to moderate its use than disapproving lectures would.
Della, our three-year old, is living verification of the law of inertia. She is constantly in motion and seems likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Her pet word, understandably, is “why?”. Someone her age, an enthusiastic observer of life’s intriguing newness, is entitled to seek explanations for regularly encountered mysteries. In addition to the information- seeking function of her word, there’s another one, a blood -relation of Rosie’s “no.” This use seeks justification for something that, against her better instincts, she’s been asked to do. When her dad tells her to wear flip-flops to the beach, “why” probes the motivation for such an outlandish request. Most times, the rationale for something she’s been asked to do won’t totally satisfy her, but sometimes, thankfully, the light of logic does become apparent, validating her use of “why?” and ensuring its continued use.
The value of “Why?” is often ignored when voiced by children because it’s stereotyped as simply a challenge to parental authority. Of course, that interpretation isn’t always incorrect, as I can testify from serving two hitches as a dad. In occasional intergenerational clashes of perspective in daily life, differences of opinion can certainly be annoying. That children are basically trying to feel comfortable within a society still unfolding for them often escapes even savvy parents. Adults can get weary of bombardment by the word and counter it with impatience, especially when the magic word is a truculent demand to know why “you” have the right to tell “me” what to do. Too often, these confrontations lead to the worst of all answers, the vacuous response, “Because I said so!”
Having survived those landmark years in the lives of Gill and Alan, I enjoy observing how they unfold with four grandkids. I can observe and therefore appreciate their progressive steps toward maturity. I consider “why” to be a major part of the verbal staircase leading to that destination.
Kids want and need explanations for things that strike them as incomprehensible. Confronting what disrupts comfortable predictability can frustrate them. They become uneasy because they lack a needed sense of control over what’s happening around them. Unfortunately, having been long liberated from these feelings, we adults often can’t identify with them. But when we lack that sympathy and comprehension, we overlook something immensely important: we should be re-assured by most “why?” episodes because they’re products of curiosity; they’re attempts to blend cause and effect, to discern reason in life. Soon enough, they’ll learn how little of that commodity actually exists, but my earnest hope is that, properly reared, they’ll have been conditioned not to surrender meekly to that societal flaw.
I used to feel happy when I saw families with quiet, obedient toddlers strolling the streets. Somehow, there seemed something irrationally reassuring about those placid, generally non-communicative people. They appeared united by a single purpose and, therefore, not in need of conversation. That mind-set no longer exists. Now, I admire groups whose kids, trying to put in comprehensible order what they’re seeing and feeling, besiege adults with questions. Simple as the sought answers may be, they’re at the heart of decoding life as it exists then and there for the little ones. Those answers help build foundations for adulthoods that habitually seek to fathom underlying meanings and purposes of life.
I’m especially partial to families who push kids to venture explanations of their own. Instead of always being the designated answerers, these parents will, when appropriate, encourage youngsters to devise their own explanations. However wide of the mark these attempts may be, adult responses to them feature not negativity but encouragement and praise for the do-it-yourself spirit. Having seen, during my teaching career, too many students habituated to seeking answers from others rather than pursuing them on their own, I regard that approach as an admirable introduction to self-reliance, a critical component of independent thinking. And our society, particularly at this alarming time, needs all the independent thinkers it can get.
There’s no guarantee that answers we seek come with a pleasantness guarantee. In this troubled world, many responses to this simple but profound question are ones we’d rather not hear. In these instances, there’s a choice to be made: accept the truth, even if it’s an unhappy one or try to evade it by ignoring it. Results of the latter response can lead to disaster. As we’re painfully aware, many people cede to opportunists the right to concoct lies that deceive them into feeling better by subverting truth. Their recurrent theme: “the problem isn’t your fault; you’ve been victimized by THEM!” Sadly, news almost daily indicates many individuals have opted for this snake oil antidote. In abandoning their obligation for thoughtful analysis, these dupes become manipulable by self-serving propagandists and outright liars. This depressingly large group perform as puppets for unscrupulous ventriloquists.
Not long ago, I wouldn’t have thought about “why” as much as I do now. Then, I accepted that every era inevitably contained its share of non-thinkers waiting to be exploited. Aware of this condition, the Father Coughlins and Joe McCarthys lurking in the swamp happily fed off them. But in the end, I assumed, rationality would prevail.
I was too complacent. We live now in an environment where an estimated 40% of our population are programmable. Like baby birds, they rely for sustenance on what their mother birds regurgitate into them. Global warming? A fantasy of the accursed “elite.” The rightful President? Donny boy, victim of fraud perpetrated by that accursed elite. January 6 insurrection? No such thing. Simply a harmless social event.
What once seemed beyond comprehension, a scary fairy tale, has materialized. We live in a time when the single most influential person in one of our two major parties is guided by one principle: Tell a lie often enough and your mindless followers will embrace it as truth. Their reality is whatever you invent for them. Who could have imagined how remarkably powerful this corrupt idol would turn out to be?
With so many people today comfortable in the role of lie-nourished lackeys, my hopes for the future must lie with the maturing “why” generation. May their “whys” continue and deepen. May they sharpen their awareness by being alert, curious, and healthily skeptical. May they require explanations for what’s unclear to them. May they be independent enough and centered enough to reject overtures from those lusting to craft counterfeit realities. And may their “crap detectors” always function efficiently.
Our future is uncertain and, to be depressingly honest, not overly re-assuring. How long will it take for us to emerge from these dark nights of our souls? My hopes for what’s ahead rest with Della and Rosie and their contemporaries. I’ve come to understand more the value of blending “why” with “no.” Sounds to me like a healthful recipe for the future, an antidote for a society that’s been deeply corrupted by gutless, subservient politicians.