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Why is the sky grey?
Because you live in Scotland, son.
Kids. Don't you just love 'em? All that energy and wide-eyed curiosity. It's enough to make you scweem and shout. The 'what' questions are bad enough. But it's the 'why' questions that really do your head in. The following entry is compiled of some of the many brilliant postings and threads collected at the bottom of this entry.
Let's kick off this entry then, with some nice little innocent questions from our inquisitive-minded little cherubs. Bless.
'What's a Fuh-gina?'
Ooh. Erm. Well. Gosh... Would you like some more orange juice?
Phew! It's a toughy, that one. And it's hard not to sound like Hugh Grant answering it, either. Well, one simple answer comes from the following Researcher:
I imagine a good answer would be something like 'That is a part of a mommy's body where a baby is born'.
'Why are They Fighting in High-Raak?'
To which the father replied:
I wish I knew son, I wish I knew.
'How Do You Get Fresh Air Out of Your Bottom?'
The best, or possibly worst question I can remember my son asking me was when he was sitting on the loo. I tried to explain about the digestive system and the gases produced, and he seemed quite happy with the answer.
Always Love Your Granny
Ouch! The following was the worst question one Researcher can remember coming from his younger brother who was in fine form.
She can, as can mother-in-laws the world over, be a bit of a tyrant. Dad (her son) has moments when he looks like he could throttle her and she and my mum have never got on. The brother sibling and I were popping in for a visit aged about six and four, mom and dad having been discussing she who is affectionately referred to as the 'Ayatollah' in not particularly complimentary terms. Got to the front door, 'Hi, Gran, how are you' etc... completed the niceties and then out of the blue my brother asks...
'Gran, Why don't Mummy and Daddy Like You?'
If you pardon the expression...I've never had to answer the one about babies, but I still remember my parents managing to answer this question without mentioning sex at all. Their exact words:
'When a man and a woman have been together a very long time, a seed passes from the man's body into the woman's body.'
And that was it. No mention that actual physical contact was involved at any point. Naturally I spent the rest of my childhood frightened to go near anyone of the female persuasion in case I spent too long talking to them and fertilised them by accident.
I remember being told about a 'special cuddle' that a mummy and a daddy have when they love each other very much.
I also remember seeing Todd and Phoebe on Neighbours cuddling on the sofa fully-clothed, when I was a bit older and knew which body parts were involved, and then, suddenly, Phoebe was pregnant, so I thought it could happen through two layers of denim...
My daughter (she's nearly six) loves to ask about babies and the time when she was in my tummy. We were talking the other day and she asked: 'What does it feel like to have a baby in your tummy?'. I told her it felt very nice, especially when she was moving around inside. My son (aged four) piped up: 'I'm a boy, so I was in Daddy's tummy'. I gently corrected him, no son, only mummies have babies. Astonished, he asked, 'Was I in your tummy as well?' Yes, I said. You got hiccups every day. 'And did I move around?' Yes. He nodded, and said, very matter-of-fact: 'I was looking for the way out.'
One Researcher's three-year-old son likes to ask cyclic questions (though it suspected that he doesn't actually know that he is doing it). Apparently, a typical bath time question will run like this (usually about once or twice a week):
'Where does the water go?'
'Down the plug hole.'
'Down the drain pipe.'
'In to the sewer.'
'It is cleaned up.'
'It is returned to the river.'
'It flows in to the sea.'
'The Sun shines and evaporates some of the water.'
'It forms clouds.'
'The clouds move to the land.'
'The clouds then rain on the land.'
'The water flows in to streams, rivers and lakes.'
'The water companies collect the water, clean it and feed it in to the water supply network.'
'We turn on our taps and fill the bath with water.'
'We have a bath then let the water out afterwards.'
'I think we have already covered this, son!'
The Calvin Approach
Sometimes tricky questions are asked and an explanation isn't easy to think up, as in this example from Calvin and Hobbes:
Calvin: How does a carburettor work?
Dad: I can't tell you.
Calvin: Why not?
Dad: It's a secret.
Calvin: I don't believe you.
Calvin's Dad is the master...
Calvin: Where do babies come from? Is it true a stork leaves them swaddled in a bundle on the front step?
Dad: In most cases yes, but you were dumped unceremoniously down the chimney by a big hairy pterodactyl.
Dad: Explains a lot doesn't it?
He really is!
Calvin: Dad, what causes the wind?
Dad: Trees sneezing.
Dad: No, but the truth is more complicated.
'What is Light?'
The opposite of heavy? Okay - enough of the funny stuff. Here's a considered fact-based response to a child's question about light. Let's start with what we know about light? What colour is light? What we normally think of as white light is actually a whole range of colours, from red right through to purple. You should be able to show this fairly easily, by recreating one of Sir Isaac Newton's experiments.
All you need is a torch and a clear prism. If you can't find a glass or plastic prism, you can make something that should work just as well - take a flat bottomed clear plastic (or glass) container, and fill about a quarter full with water. If you tilt the container, one end will be 'deeper' than the other, so you effectively have a prism.
Just shine the torch through the prism - you may need to move the torch around, trying different angles to get a good result. Also, it will be easier to see the result with a narrower beam of light.
So, 'white' light is made up of lots of different colours. What the above experiment also shows is that we can split the colours using a prism. The prism bends the different colours by different amounts - red gets bent the least, blue and purple gets bent the most.
We now need to think about how the light from the Sun is affected as it comes to us, on Earth. As it approaches the Earth, it enters the atmosphere, which acts like a prism, and bends the rays of light. Since the red/orange/yellow light doesn't get bent very much, we see the Sun as being a yellowy-orange colour. All the green, blue and purple light gets bent much more - so much that it appears (to us) not to come from the Sun at all, but from the rest of the sky. So when the Sun is high in the sky, we get a blue sky.
However, things are different when the Sun is low in the sky - just after dawn and before dusk. If you look towards the Sun (but not straight at it, as this can damage your sight), the sky is orangey-red. Again, the blue light has been bent more than the red - but because of the position of the Sun, the light is passing through more of the atmosphere, so the blue light gets bent even more than before. It gets bent so much that we don't see very much of it at all. The red light is also bent more then before, which (along with the absence of blue light) explains why more of the sky is orangey red.
So what about rainbows? These are caused by the same effect, but this time it is the rain which acts as a prism. Each drop of rain splits the light, just like the prism in the above experiment. As well as this, the light is actually reflected off the back of the raindrop (notice that whenever you are looking at a rainbow, the Sun is directly behind you)!
Let us concentrate on the middle part of the rainbow - where the colours are (mostly) horizontal stripes. When the light leaves a single raindrop, it is split so that the blue light is 'higher' than the red light. The effect of this is that you only see red light from a raindrop that is higher in the sky than one you see blue light from. So, for the central part of the rainbow, you see red at the top and blue/purple at the bottom. The same effect is true for the rest of the rainbow, although the 'directions' are slightly different.
'Why Is The Sky Up There?'
This is the first question one Researcher asked their dad. Here's a few possible responses:
Because there's no room for it down here.
Because blue is lighter than green or brown and floats above them (can cause problems if close to the sea).
The clouds hold it up.
The birds need something to breathe.
From the School of Simple Answers
Here's some great answers to general questions:
'Why is grass green? Why is the sky blue?'
- Because otherwise pilots would get confused and crash.
'Why can't I have the latest whizz-bangosaurus-bot that's just been advertised on telly? You're mean and I hate you!'
- a) Because we want to buy you a cheaper copy so all your friends will tease you.
- b) Because far away, lots of little children are locked up in a big factory making these whizz-bangosaurus-bots so that a few evil men can drive big expensive cars and eat at posh restaurants.
'Why did Fluffy have to die? Why can't God get his own rabbit?'
- Fluffy didn't like you, neither does God.
'Did Jesus and Father Christmas go to school together?'
- a) Darling, now you're three I think you are old enough to know the truth; there is no such thing as... Jesus/school.
- b) No. Father Christmas is just a marketing ploy by Coke.
'Why do I have to give Granny a kiss? She smells!'
- Because when you grow up you'll have to do many things you don't want to do, so get used to it.
But Why Is Grass Green?
Why is grass green?
Because that's how plants are.
Because that's how they make their energy to grow.
Because that's how it works.
Because it goddam well is!!
Do you really want to know? Well, the green colour in grass and other plants comes from a chemical called chlorophyll. But that doesn't tell you why grass is green, does it? The answer to this lies in the way plants get their food. Plants get most of their energy from the Sun, so they need a way to turn the 'light energy' into a chemical form, which can be stored in the plant and used when it is needed.
In this chemical conversion, the plant takes in light from the Sun, carbon dioxide from the air, and water from the soil, and turns them into oxygen, which it breathes out into the air, and carbohydrates ('food'), which can be stored in the plant.
The chlorophyll is needed to make the process work - it 'traps' light from the Sun, allowing the energy to be used to convert the chemicals.
What is electricity and how come along the wires? Why can't we see it when we pull out the plugs? So, how do you explain that one to a child? Well, there's a stupid answer. Or, in the following case, there's a more considered response.
For your electricity demonstration you will need the following materials:
1 ball-chain necklace (the kind used for military dogtags).
1 Clear drinking straw with sufficient diameter so as to allow the necklace to pass through.
Imagine the wire is this straw. To electrons, the solid metal is as easy to move through as air - the centre of the straw. This is called a 'Conductor'. The outside of the straw is hard for the electrons to go through, and is called an 'Insulator'. The electrons are represented by each 'ball' on the chain, which we'll thread through the straw. As we pull on one end of this chain, the rest of the electrons follow behind, always keeping the straw 'filled' up. If we connect the chain to form a loop, then we can pull on it forever. This is called a 'Circuit'. If we pull in only one direction, it's called 'Direct Current', or 'DC'. If we tug on each end in turn, like a saw, then we have 'Alternating Current', or 'AC'. The main point is that the electrons are always moving (the 'Current'). It is this movement that we give the term 'Electricity'.
If we snap apart the circuit and pull it out, we have an 'Open Circuit', and after the electrons leave the straw, no more flow through. This is why nothing happens after you unplug something - it creates this open circuit, and no electrons flow. If electrons were big enough, we could see them like this chain, but they happen to be some of the smallest bits of matter around.
So how do these bits actually do anything? Well, imagine Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and she's up against a munchkin. No contest, right? Right. Now imagine she's up against the same munchkin and 6.23 x 10^21 of his/her friends every second. Yes, Dorothy is in big trouble. An electron, by itself, is not very big, but when you get enough of them together, well...
What is it about metal that wires like? Well, it goes back to that whole 'electrons like other electrons' thing. Metals, in general, don't mind 'letting go' of one of their electrons but, by golly, they make sure they don't lose them for long. Think of it as playing a game of musical chairs with electrons whizzing about, and the metal atoms providing the chairs for them. As long as the music's playing, they're happy as clams. Pull the plug, and everyone sits down and does nothing (that open circuit we mentioned earlier).
There are some materials that electrons can move through easily under certain conditions, and badly (or not at all) under other conditions. These are called 'Semi-conductors'. We can control these conditions, and use the material, the most common being silicon, to turn on and off the flow of electrons. Think of it as being able to switch a train from track to track, or to stop it altogether. All this switching about allows us to use the electrons as we see fit, making computers, stereos, dishwashers, and a whole variety of items we call 'Electronics'.
OK, you can wake up now.
'My Tummy's Full!'
The mother of the following Researcher was very cunning in that she used a question to get her own way, prompting the Researcher in question to wail, 'I almost never got dessert without a hassle!'.
Researcher: 'I don't want that! My tummy's full.'
Mother: 'Oh, you don't want some dessert?'
Researcher: 'I have enough room in my tummy for dessert, not that.'
Mother: 'Then you can eat until the dessert space is full.'
My sister and I have always known that tummies contain two completely separate compartments - a dinner part and a pudding part. There is no way you can fill the pudding part with dinner as your body can tell what it's eating and directs it to the right place. Hence, you can be full up of dinner, but still have plenty of room for pudding!
Children always have a knack of asking questions at the most inconvenient times. Example driving them to school in heavy traffic and they ask ' How, exactly, does the sperm get to the egg?' Try answering that one and concentrate on driving at the same time!
How Old Are You Mummy/Daddy?
For some reason mums get away for a mighty long time by answering the above question with the answer, 21, which is neither too old, or too young. The problems come when a youngster starts to learn subtraction at school and a few years later realises that the difference between mummy's age and their own is actually decreasing. If the child has not worked this out by their 22 birthday they have missed too many elementary maths lessons.
Fathers, on the other hand, are tarred by the opposite brush. Dads can suffer from premature male pattern baldness and therefore look older than some famous people who have retained their hair. Therefore dads end up being classed as ancient at all times. Dads should be thankful that jokes about bald spots and grey hairs may lessen as male youngsters start to realise that this will happen to them to.
When Is a Question Inappropriate?
Part of bringing up kids is suffering acute embarrassment. This next anecdote's a cracker!
When my little girl was toilet training some people were quite shocked at the times and places we allowed her 'potty talk'. But kids have no idea what is appropriate and what isn't. We wanted her to be confident about using the toilet, and to know it was a natural thing which everyone did, and if that meant asking everyone about it, well I'd rather she did that than get told off for speaking inappropriately and start thinking using the toilet was 'dirty' and getting put off before she'd even started. This meant coping with questions like 'Is daddy doing a big brown poo now?' in crowded restaurants!
Back to 'that' question again...
My daughter asked about where babies came from at quite an early age, and I described it simply using pencil and paper to 'illustrate' some points. She seemed to take it all in and the subject was dropped.
Two days later my eight-month pregnant sister-in-law and her husband came for Sunday tea, and as the meal progressed my daughter asked if she could have a third cake. I told her that two was quite enough and my brother-in-law said: 'Oh, no, you'll get fat like your Aunty Jean'.
To which my daughter asked permission to leave the table, and shortly returned with pencil and paper saying, 'No, no, Uncle John, Aunty Jean's not fat because she ate too many cakes - let me show you how it really happened...' and proceeded to reproduce more or less word-for-word and picture for picture what I had told her two days ago.
The Tooth Fairy
Some adults seem to think it's embarrassing not to be able to come up with an answer, so they 'invent' an explanation rather than admitting that they don't know. Lying to your children just teaches them that they can't trust you. It won't make them any less likely to trust a stranger!
If you don't know the answer to a question, simply say so - it won't hurt the kid to find out that no one knows everything - and kids tend to see through fake explanations anyway, which will make them less trusting in their own parent. Here's a wonderful little anecdote about one Researcher's encounter with a difficult question - this time about the existence of The Tooth Fairy - and how it resulted in a nice compromise.
One of my worst experiences working as a play scheme volunteer with seven-year-olds was when we almost had a full scale riot because one of the kids told all the others that the tooth fairy was just your mum and dad. I thought it was up to the parents to decide what they want to tell their kids, so I deflected it by asking questions back, which I still think is a good tactic for helping kids to think for themselves.
First I asked the instigator, 'Why do you think the tooth fairy is your mum and dad?'
'Because I wasn't really asleep and I saw my dad come and take the tooth'
'Why would your dad want your old tooth?'
At which point the others started in with their own theories. Eventually, after much discussion, they decided that the tooth fairy does exist, because if your mum and dad want to give you money they just give you it, and they wouldn't need the tooth anyway. But if the tooth fairy thinks you're awake she uses camouflage to look like your mum and dad.
Maybe not the most accurate conclusion they could have reached, but they reached it by logical debate among themselves, which is a valuable skill for them to learn. Similarly my three-year-old recently decided that there are two tooth fairies, one which takes the teeth away from big children, and one which hammers them in to babies, and that's why her baby brother cries when his teeth are coming. She was so proud of having worked it out herself! I don't think it will do her a great deal of harm to believe that for a while, although I never said 'yes that's right' or actually lied to her.
And by answering a question with another question, or even a 'what do you think?' I find out an awful lot about the way my kids think. I explain to the best of my ability, and I encourage my little girl (the baby's only one, too young to ask) to help me look up the answers for things I don't know - recent classics have included 'why is the sky so big I can't count it?' and 'why is the rain in drops'. I don't know enough science to answer that myself, let alone in terms a three-year-old would understand, so we investigate in books and online. Its never too soon to teach them that it can be fun to learn new things.
It's worth saying that putting children off asking questions altogether is a bad move. If adults had the same natural inquisitiveness as children, then the world would be a much happier place, with more chocolate hand-prints. And mud pies. But also, we shouldn't be afraid of romanticising certain things for our kids, just enough for us to keep that magic alive, to prolong that most precious period of their lives, their childhood!
I don't think there's anything wrong with letting kids believe in fairies, etc or, indeed, in telling them they exist. Childhood is supposed to be a magical time, full of fairies, Santa, and monsters under the bed (as for monsters under the bed, I believe the best way to deal with them is not to say they don't exist, as the child knows jolly well they do, but to make a big thing of 'killing' or getting rid of the monster, so the bed is safe again) and if children don't believe in these things, they tend to grow up far too fast. Most children realise these things aren't true by themselves, and feel quite proud of themselves for doing so, and I, for one, wasn't scarred in any way by realising Santa was just mum and dad!