The ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘why’, ‘when’ questions of the young child are critical indicators that the child is on the mature course to attempting to understand and manage the world (s)he presently occupies. It is essential that parents and other significant adults are not only patient with what can often be an incessant flow of questions but also that they share the child’s adventure of learning. Of course, parents can be tired and stressed but these feelings need to be managed in ways that do no jeopardise either the unconditional relationship with the child or the child’s eagerness to learn. Parents and teachers passing on responsibility to children for their own struggles in living can mean that children stop asking questions because they perceive that the questions are ‘driving my Mum mad’ or ‘she’s not interested’ or, even more worryingly, that ‘I don’t matter.’
Quest-ions are central to maturation and as the child progresses from womb to family, from family to play school, from play school to primary school, from primary school to secondary school, from the less challenging world of family and primary school to the much more challenging wider world of adolescence, the number of questions that need answers are majorly increasing. When earlier questions have not gained needed information, then the accumulation of lack of necessary knowledge and understanding makes life very difficult for the growing young person. Even more alarming is the situation where the child has stopped asking questions and is plunged headlong into new worlds without a means of gaining the knowledge required to cope with the acceleration of the number of life’s challenges. I have helped many individuals who when young children stopped asking questions due to experiences in homes and classrooms of not being listened to, or encountering adult irritability and impatience or criticism or being humiliated in front of peers for asking questions. Whatever the threatening experience was, it is a matter of urgency for young people to find safety, encouragement and support to recover their fundamental need to ask questions. Certainly, the significant adults in these children’s lives need to be on the alert to the absence of questions. The most powerful way that they can reduce the children’s or teenager’s fear of questioning is to model themselves a passion for questioning. Children largely take their cues from parents’ own ways of responding and it is an important responsibility for parents and teachers to reinforce the innate need to know that is not only in children but in all adults as well.
The barriers that were and are still to a high degree present in homes, classrooms, community and, indeed, workplaces, are:
‘for peace sake don’t upset your mother’
‘for peace sake don’t upset your father’
‘for peace sake don’t upset the teacher’
‘for peace sake don’t upset the doctor’
‘for peace sake don’t upset my mother’ (husband to wife or vice versa)
‘for peace sake don’t upset my father’ (husband to wife or vice versa)
‘for peace sake don’t upset the boss’
Thankfully, the prohibition of ‘for peace sake don’t upset the priest or nun’ is nearly extinguished. Prohibitions block the emergence of truth and the build-up of knowledge that is essential to maturity. Too well we know how the ban on questions on sexuality had such a devastating effect on children and adults. Ignorance is not bliss but a serious blight on a young or, indeed, older person’s mature development.
The ‘Who Am I’ question is the inquiry that mostly occupies the minds of teenagers, but when they are surrounded by adults who still are in a state of confusion and have not resolved the personal identity question, is it any wonder that most teenagers do not come to any definite sense of their unique presence and to inhabit their own individuality. An equally crucial question that particularly occupies adults is ‘what is life all about?’ The collapse of religious beliefs has left many people floundering as to the meaning of life.
Some scientists have become quite dogmatic about there being no spiritual reality to life even though at present science only explains about four per cent of the universe – hardly grounds for certainty. It is ironic that the dogmatism of religions is being repeated by some scientists and that these scientists are even more fanatical into proselytising than their religious counterparts. Dogma always spells uncertainty; individuals who have achieved convictions have no need to convince others. On the contrary, they accept that each person has to find his or her own answers to the essential self and life questions. What is certain is that we are only scratching the surface of the complexity and the creativity of the universe and what it means to be truly and fully human.
Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology including The Mature Manager.