"Do you ever have sex when you don't want to make a baby? And why would you do that?" If there are children in your midst, you'll have to answer things like this, and other "fun" queries as well. Like: "Mommy, why didn't you tell me you had such a soft moustache?!" In my column this week, I consider the bemusing and brilliant nature of Kid Questions.
A couple of times a day, my kids will ask me if they can ask me a question. It’s one of our most predictable interactions. The main reason for this is my 9-year-old son’s polite—if I’m being charitable—way of getting my attention with this sentence and then waiting for my answer—always a yes—before launching into what most often amounts to an emphatic statement of some kind, not a question at all. In these moments I fear he may become one of those people in the audience at readings or forums who, when called upon by the panel and given a microphone, begins ominously by saying, “I have more of a comment than a question…” Does anything strike fear more spontaneously into the hearts of an audience than when someone begins this way? The more-of-a–commenter-than-a-questioner will often have plastic bags filled with soggy newspapers at his feet. You know, for reference.
But let’s return to the blissful and confounding nature of kid questions. A lot of the time, the four kids in my household, all under the age of ten, pose wonderfully, hilariously formulated questions. Impossible to answer questions. Worldview questions. Scientific questions. Religious questions. GOD questions. SEX questions. And worst of all, questions about why I might be doing something the way I’m doing it, why I look the way I might look, and why grownups like wine so much.
Some of these, as you might have guessed, are just plain Not So Nice to grapple with. For example, a recent query by my daughter about why “adults’ butts move so much” when hers just stays “in one place.” Or, when my son asked while watching me eat my lunch, “Mom, do you know that if you put that much salad dressing on the salad it’s not really acting like a salad anymore, so did you actually know that?”
“Can I ask you a question,” I wanted to say. “Can you shut your PB&J-hole right now?”
Here’s another he posed a few years ago.
Encountering a giant crucifix on the front lawn of a church on Court Street, he said:
“Mom, who IS that guy anyway? He’s pretty much everywhere. Why don’t they put him inside?”
And another, heard from the far back reaches of our minivan, my son to his seven year old sister:
“Listen to this question I’ve got for Mom,” he whispered to her. “Mommy, can I ask you a question? Did you know that my penis is the son of Dad’s penis and her vagina is the daughter of your vagina? Is that true, do you think, Mom?”
Their questions can astonish and cheer me. They can depress and frighten me. Make me giddy and proud and hopeful. And sometimes worried and unsure of myself in every way. But it remains my job, and yours if you have kids in your midst, to attempt to answer them. Or totally lie to them. Whatever it takes.
Like if they ask, as my friend’s kid recently did:
What’s weed, Mom?
Questions posed by kids are very different than statements, or general pronouncements, made by kids. Questions are more taxing because they require action on your part, careful wisdom. But the “darndest things” they come up with are highly valued too—another specialty of small people that brings delightful comedy to me no matter how clichéd and universal the topic. For example, my son calls things that are old—people, leftovers, sneakers—“hagged.” As in, this banana is totally hagged.
I really believe their verbal innovations, unique perspectives and innocent formulations of inquiry are among the best parts of parenting young children. I regret not writing down every philosophical, gastrointestinal, higher power, sexual query my kids have ever made. Most of those funny, shocking moments are gone now, half remembered points on their evolutionary charts as thinkers and observers. I’m consoled to know that there will be many more though. Can I ask you a question? There will be many more, right? It’s not over yet, is it?
Here is a list of inquiries that have either been asked of me by my own kids, or shared with me by generous, equally baffled parents I know. I’m certain the questions get dicier and more layered with import as they age. There will be more at stake all the time. There will be fact checking! For now, I limited the remarks to those made by kids in elementary school. I shudder to imagine what I’ll be asked when they’re teenagers. Or worse, what I won’t be asked.
If you can answer these better than we did in the moments they occurred—usually with averted eye contact, a rush-job answer and an offer of an ice cream cone—I’d love to know how you know so much and exactly how you know it. I’d also love to know if you’ve ever tried the ice cream strategy. Because it works, and I stand by it, and do you think I’ll be struck down for answering God questions with Sixteen Handles bacchanals?
While examining her naked mother stepping out of the shower and drying off, a five-year-old girl asked:
“Mommy, when I grow up, will I have a little strip too?”
Upon close inspection of her mother’s face:
“Why didn’t you tell me you have a moustache, Mommy!? It’s so soft.”
“Why are your teeth not so white?”
“Is your butt supposed to look that way in those pants?”
“What do you think is less fun overall? Staten Island or Sacramento?”
A nine-year-old boy to his father during a recent game of catch in the playground:
“Dad? Who was your first crush and first open-mouth kiss and did you love her? And if not, why didn’t you?”
Upon presenting herself to her mother in a bold, seizure-inducing array of patterns and synthetic fabrics, a seven-year-old girl asked:
“Do I look beautiful, Mom? Do you think this outfit is the most beautiful?” (There is only one answer to these questions. Obviously.)
My son to me, on multiple occasions:
“When I was born, did I fly right out of you onto a pile of silk pillows?”
“No to the ‘flying out,’ and yes to the silk pillows,” I told him.
A seven-year-old boy upon entering a Christmas Eve church service. His face a mask of terror and his voice at shocking volume:
“Why is Emperor Palpatine here? How is he IN here?”
Mine, and presumably yours too, have all asked if God is “real,” if the world could “end,” and “what do you think about it?” Unless you’re a Creationist or find yourself awaiting an imminent rapture, these comments might be more complicated to tease apart. Leading to answers more nuanced in scope than the kinds of answers that would satisfy them. This is a good time to try to tell the truth. Or to lie. It’s definitely one or the other.
A rapid-fire bombardment of these gems happened to someone I know in the Niagara Falls area:
“Do you have to take all of your clothes off to have sex?”
“Do you ever have sex in the house when we’re home? Where are we?”
“Why is it very private?”
“Do you ever have sex when you don’t want to make a baby?”
“Why would you do that?”
My son, upon digging into a dinner I spent a-never-to-be-regained afternoon shopping and cooking for, instead of doing my actual work:
“Did you even know, Mom, I’m sorry, but did you know that this tastes like poison a little bit? If I keep eating it, is it possible I can die from hating the poison taste so much? What are these grasses in here and these spice balls?”
He finished with a challenge. “Seriously, Mom, I dare you, taste it and see what happens.”
These are the worst in my opinion, and often result in the eating of treats:
“Mom, are you going to die?”
My son at age three, after hearing his Dad call someone a douchebag in another car while driving:
“Momma, what’s a deucebag?”
“He didn’t say that,” I said. “He said juicebox.”
“Oh,” he said. “Juicebox.”
Which backfired only a tad when his preschool teacher offered him a juicebox and he covered his mouth and pointed at her and said she’d used the very bad word that his daddy uses when he’s mad at people driving. She was confused. I think it went as well as it could have.
Laying in the lower bunk with my daughter the other night, after naming all the breeds of dog we could think of—she is myopically dog-focused, dog-centered, dog-sick with dog-love—she asked me a familiar question. She said, “Mommy? Will you always love me more than anything in the world, the planet, the solar system, and the country?”
“Yes,” I said. “I will. And will you always promise to ask me exactly that question exactly that way so I can always yes?”
“Yes,” she said. “I will.”
Sometimes, it’s so easy.
This column first appeared on South Brooklyn Post on April 10, 2014.