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Dealing with Never-Ending Questions

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Updated June 20, 2007

"More input! More input!" Those are the words of Number Five, the an experimental robot who came to life in the movie "Short Circuit." Soon after coming to life, Number Five discovered books. He read them voraciously and, being a robot, extremely quickly. He would barely have put one down when he'd cry, "More input!"

Number Five reminds me of some gifted children. They are incredibly curious and can't seem to get enough information. One of their very favorite words is "Why." It's also one of their favorite questions.

Here's a typical exchange between a gifted child and a parent:
Mom: "Jenny, eat your green beans."
Jenny: "I don't like them. Why do I have to eat them?"
Mom: "Because they are good for you."
Jenny: "Why are they good for me?"
Mom: "Because they have vitamins."
Jenny: "Why are vitamins good for me?"
Mom: "Just eat your green beans!"
Jenny: "But why?"
Mom (exasperated): "Because I said so!"

These kinds of exchanges often end with mom or dad resorting to the "Because I said so" answer. It is sometimes just too tiring and frustrating to continue answering the never-ending "why" questions. And sometimes, we just don't know the answers to all those questions!

Although it may be difficult to answer all the questions a gifted child might have, we really don't want to stifle their curiosity by answering with "Because I said so" or "Stop asking so many questions." We want to encourage our children's curiosity, but how to we do that without having our brains turn into mental mush at the end of a long day?

One thing that will help is a change in attitude. Rather than seeing the questioning as an annoyance, parents can think about Number Five's quest for knowledge and remind themselves that their children are like little Number Fives, hungry for information.

Unfortunately, a change in attitude won't make the questions easier to answer or make parents less tired at the end of the day; however, there are a couple of simple strategies parents can use that might help.

Strategies for Dealing with Never-Ending Questions
  • Postpone answering a question until a more convenient time.
    Although children may want an immediate answer, you don't have to supply one. You can acknowledge the question and defer answering it until later. For example, when little Jenny asked why she had to eat her green beans, mom could have said something like "I understand that you don't like green beans, but I don't want to debate their value during dinner. We can talk about it later." Of course, mom needs to follow through and discuss the virtues of green beans with Jenny later.

  • Don't be afraid to say "I don't know."
    Sometimes parents get exhausted trying to come up with the answers to all the questions a child has, particularly when they aren't experts in the area of questioning. "Who spoke the first word?" "What will happen when Polaris isn't the north star anymore?" Those are two questions beyond the expertise of most parents. It's okay to say "I don't know." However, rather than leaving the question unanswered, a parent can become their child's learning partner. For example, when little Jenny asked why vitamins are good for her, mom could have answered something like, "That's a great question. I don't know exactly why. Maybe we can look up the answer together." Of course, mom does have to make the attempt to look up the information with Jenny.

Suggestions for Following Through on Strategies
Gifted children have excellent memories, which means that they are not likely to forget that mom or dad said they'd discuss a question later or look up an answer. If you use these strategies, be sure you are prepared to follow through. That means that if you have postponed answering, you are ready to have a discussion later. Or if you said you would look up information with your child, be ready to do that as well.

However, it's probably a good idea to have some general guidelines for how you will deal with the questions later. Otherwise, you could end up bombarded again with questions when you are too tired or too busy to answer them. For example, you can set aside a certain time of the day for discussions. It could be after dinner. In fact, it could be when the dinner dishes are being washed and the kitchen being cleaned up. You can have your child help you clean up after dinner and during the clean up, you can have a discussion. If you have more than one child, the one with the unanswered question is the one who helps with the clean-up. An added advantage to this technique is that children may see clean-up time as time to share with their parents rather than tedious chore time.

Questions that you couldn't answer because you didn't know the answer need to be handled differently. After all, it wasn't just time or fatigue that was a problem. It was lack of knowledge. Having to look up information every day can easily add to the fatigue and will certainly take up time! Rather than try to answer every question every day, make a list of unanswerable questions that come up during the week. The list can be written in a notebook, on a sheet of paper posted on the refrigerator, or even a large sheet of paper (or poster board) taped to the child's bedroom wall.

At the end of the week, you and your child can take the list of questions to the library and find some books that are likely to have the answers. If you have time during the week, you can also search the Internet for answers, starting with the About.com site. You know you can find reliable information on any of the guide sites here. You can also visit allexperts.com, where you might be able to find someone who will be able to answer your specific question. You ask a question, and three days later you get an answer.

It may seem as though these strategies will take a great deal of time. However, chances are good that you may not have to have all those discussions or find answers to all those questions. A child may not really be interested enough to pursue the information, but by postponing rather than refusing to answer questions, you are encouraging rather than stifling your child's curiosity. You also end up with a long list of potential subjects to explore with your child whenever time permits.
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