I always knew that parents have to field an insane amount of questions in a given day. I knew this because I was a teacher for several years, and my students used to ask me questions all the time. I heard everything from, "Mr. Alexander, did you used to wear an earring?" to "Why do you have hair on your nose but not on your head?" This doesn't even count all the questions I got that actually pertained to the stuff we were studying. Then there are the college students I teach, whose inquiries can basically be refined to this one, overarching question: "If we do everything you tell us to do, will we make an A in your class?" What surprised me about the majority of questions I get from my own kids is not the volume, but how many of them I don't actually know how to answer. Things like, "Why is orange a fruit AND a color?" or "Why are circles round?" Where do you even start with those kinds of questions? I mean, do I really want to get into an etymological or ontological discussion with my 4-year old? Do I even know enough about the origins of language or the history of geometry to do these topics justice? It's bad enough that just about everyday my kids back me into a parenting corner that I never knew was there, and it only adds insult to injury that I'm so inadequate at answering even their most basic questions.
Thankfully, I have done some research on this and have come up with several alternatives for those questions to which I don't know the answer. I call it The Hat, as in, pulling my response out of my hat. Truthfully, I should call it My Butt, but that would just instigate a whole series of questions I'm nowhere near ready to tackle.
So, without further delay, here is The Hat.
The Straight Answer
Daddy, what is that?
It's a rollie-pollie.
What's a rollie-pollie?
It's an insect.
Why do you call it a rollie-pollie?
Because it rolls up in a little ball.
Why does it roll up in a ball?
Because it's scared.
Why is it scared?
In the long term, you will be glad you chose this option, assuming you actually know the answer to the question. Eventually, your children are going to figure out you are bluffing as they learn more about the world and learn to decode your nonverbal cues. They may have thought that your lack of eye contact, fidgeting and profuse sweating were a normal response for adults answering a question, but they will figure it out eventually. Giving a straight answer is the best way to build long-term credibility and trust with your children, but it doesn't come without its costs.
For all of its long-term benefits, giving your child a straight answer has it's drawbacks. For one, your answer will probably lead to more questions, will lead to more answers, which will lead to more questions, and so on. This is called the Cycle of Futility, and chances are this is where you will spend the better part of an hour. Either your child will lose interest and forget what the original question was, or you will. Eventually, you are going to have to end this, and when that time comes you have some options.
The Sarcastic Answer
Daddy, what would happen if we ate a dead animal off the road?
People might think we're from Arkansas.
What's an Arkansas?
Honestly, there really aren't any, besides momentarily entertaining yourself. This approach works great with close friends or like-minded co-workers. Children, not so much.
If you choose to answer one of your innocent child's questions with sarcasm, you will most likely be the only person in the room who thinks you are funny. Perhaps you are delusional and think you are secretly being filmed on Big Brother or The Truman Show, and millions of households are currently rolling on the floor laughing (or, is that ROFL?) at your razor-sharp wit. No, the only thing rolling are the eyes of any mature adult who happened to overhear your lame attempt at humor.
Daddy, why are trees green?
It's due to the unilateral presupposition of a polydohedric axiom that governs the ... the ... ask your mother.
Up to a certain age, your child thinks you know everything. I mean, think about it. Why are they asking you all of these questions? Your kid actually thinks you know the answer. You and I both know you barely remember your 2nd grade teacher's name, much less anything you learned in her class. But as long as you keep spewing answers to every question your child hurls at you, they still see you as the Nikola Tesla of your domain.
It's only a matter of time before your child learns that you don't know everything, and even worse, there is a chance that he or she will remember some bit of nonsense you tried to use to quell one of their inquiries. Your best chance to save face is that your child will know you are blowing smoke and think it's endearing or cute. The worst case scenario is that he or she turns around repeats what you said at school, exposing you in front of the immediate educated world as the idiot you truly are.
The Sunday School Answer
Daddy, what is that?
It's a hexagon.
What is a hexagon?
It's a shape with 6 sides.
Why does it have 6 sides?
Well, God just made it that way?
If this actually aligns with your belief system, as it does mine, you are technically telling the truth if you explain everything in the world as something "God just made that way." He did, right? Why did people wear bell bottoms in the '70's? God just wanted it that way. Why did I think listening to Depeche Mode and The Cure in high school would actually help me get a girlfriend? God just made me that way. If you want to get ultra-spiritual with this, you can say things like, "Pray to God and ask him to tell you why hexagons have 6 sides."
Where to polygons fall in the Book of Genesis? Do we really expect our children to believe that when Adam was walking through the Garden of Eden naming the animals, he was also saddled with the task of naming geometric shapes? Do we want our children to believe this? This is exactly the kind of misinformation that comes back to haunt you on Parent Night at Vacation Bible School. Out of all the things God wants, I'm sure using the brain he put inside your head is pretty high on the list. Trust me, you will get plenty of spiritual questions from your kids. God can help with those. For everything else, use Wikipedia.
The Red Herring
Daddy, why do people have to die?
Why do I have to pay a higher tax percentage than Mitt Romney?
If you are constantly tossing a red herring out to your child every time he or she asks a "difficult" question, you will experience temporary relief from those tough questions that have plagued philosophers, theologians, world leaders and gas station attendants for centuries. Until that day when your child's attention span has developed to the point that he or she knows you are dodging the question, this strategy will give you some space to come up with a better answer. You can then decide to lie, be sarcastic, over-spiritualize it, or just give it to them straight. Don't think of the red herring so much as a tactic as it is a tool to buy you some time.
Face it, this is pretty lame. Your kid is going to figure out pretty quickly that you are skirting the tough questions in life. Puberty, social justice, mortality, ethics ... each of these is a pretty heavy load and basically shapes how each of us looks at the world. OK, maybe not puberty. That's just makes your voice sound like a goose and your feet incapable of staying in sync with your legs. But it's worthy of a well thought-out, honest answer nonetheless.
In case I lost any of you at any point in this explanation, I have created a flow chart to help you visualize how this works. You can click the picture to see a larger version.
No one who has already walked the parenting road will deny that answering all of your child's questions is a full time job, not to mention a lot of fun. Many times their questions are cute and show you exactly what is going on in that little head of theirs. From what I can tell, this will never end. Your kids will have questions about making their way in the world, about college, about relationships, and perhaps even about parenting. They will grow up and get jobs, and they may even want to show you how much they appreciate all of time and energy you put into answering their endless questions by getting you nice presents for your birthday and Christmas. And chances are, those presents will be the newest, coolest thing that you don't know how to work. But don't worry, you have their phone number, and it's payback time.