Asking Questions

“Anyway, what do you think, Gramps?”

We’re in the midst of a long conversation where my granddaughter has been explaining the options lying ahead as high school graduation approaches.  She’s university-bound for sure, but where and to do what are still up in the air.  She already has acceptances from five schools, pending submission of final marks and other documentation, and the choice really is hers.  An array of forms from the different schools is scattered on the table in front of us.

My first post-secondary foray began more than sixty years ago, so I’m hardly an informed source for her to be consulting, but this conversation has more to do with our relationship than with my expertise.  All five of my grandchildren—siblings and cousins—have always afforded me this courtesy when faced with decisions affecting their lives.

I attribute that to the upbringing they’ve received from their parents—my two daughters and their husbands.  My wife and I benefit from the affection and respect for elders that has been inculcated in the children in both families.  Even as we become increasingly irrelevant, we remain cherished.

The kids have always been encouraged by their parents to make intelligent choices when they face significant decisions, but more importantly, they’ve been helped to learn strategies for doing that.  They’ve learned to distinguish between fact and opinion, between truth and falsehood, between goodwill and venality.  They’ve learned to assess the multitude of sources of information they encounter—and to favour those that are fact-based, that are truth-oriented, that appear to advance the common good.

They were encouraged to learn from their mistakes, too, and to understand that failure can be a springboard to important learning.

Along the way, their parents also learned an important lesson, just as my wife and I did while raising our girls: when you help children learn to think for themselves, be prepared for the fact that they may eventually think differently on certain issues than you do.

In any event, here I am being asked my thoughts about my granddaughter’s options going forward.  Stroking my chin thoughtfully, I say, “Do you have a particular favourite at this point?”

“I like a couple better than the others, I guess.  But they’re all good.”

“What are the things you like that might sway your thinking?”

After a moment, she begins talking about how the academic opportunities at each school might best blend with her as-yet-unfinalized career decisions, including co-op work experience.  She talks about where her friends might be going; about the advantages of living in residence, away from home; about the extra-curricular opportunities at each school; about part-time job possibilities around campus; and about the costs associated with each choice.

“Well, you’re certainly considering a lot of factors,” I say.  “Are there any deal-breakers or must-haves?”

“There were,” she says.  “And I’ve already eliminated schools that don’t offer things I feel are important.”

“What about dead-ends?” I ask.  “What are the chances you could find yourself constrained at any of the schools if you decide to switch majors a year or two in?”

She nods as she takes this in, jots a quick note to herself on a sheet of paper listing all the schools.

“That could happen,” I add, reflecting on my own experience those many years ago, when I switched universities after finally deciding on a teaching career following graduation from a journalism program.

“Yeah, and I need to consider the possibility of post-grad work, too,” she says, circling the names of two of the schools.

“For sure!” I say, marvelling at her long focus.

“Okay, Gramps, thanks for your advice!” she says, gathering up her papers.  With a kiss on my cheek and a loving hug, she bounces out of the room.

Advice?  All I did was ask a few questions.  You don’t need advice from me!

“Let me know what you decide,” I call after her.  And I comfort myself that perhaps asking questions was the best thing I could have done because, like my other four grandchildren, this little girl knows how to think for herself.

And what do I think?  I think that’s good!

Ponderings

A friend recently sent me a list of ponder-isms he’d found somewhere on the internet, some of which I found funny, but none of which I felt were truly worth pondering.  For example—

  • Why do we feel we have to put our two cents in, yet offer only a penny for the thoughts of others?  Where does that extra penny go?
  • How is it that we put men on the moon before we figured out it would be a good idea to put wheels on luggage?
  • After a good night’s sleep, why do people say they slept like a baby when babies wake up every two hours?
  • If electricity comes from electrons, does morality come from morons?
  • Why do doctors leave the room while you change?  They’re going to see you naked anyway.
  • How did the person who made the first clock know what time it was?

I confess I have no answers at the ready to any of these questions, humourous or otherwise.  But they remind me of the queries I used to get from my grandchildren when they were quite young, back when they still thought their grandpa knew everything. 

Three of them are in university now, and the other two not far off, so our current conversations tend to be more an exchange of ideas than they once were, and less a Q&A.  I’ve found to my delight (and sometimes chagrin) that they’ve developed their own problem-solving skills and are far less likely to turn to me for answers.

Mind you, they still query things they don’t understand, for the root of any problem-solving system I’ve ever heard of—indeed, the very root of learning itself—is the ability to ask questions.  And not just the right questions, mind you, but any questions.  And not just the wherewithal to ask, but the inclination, as well.

As adults, many folks have lost that inclination to ask questions.  Perhaps some of us get hung up on the notion that we’re supposed to know it all; asking questions would display our ignorance.  And perhaps we’re not secure enough to risk showing that to others.  Whatever the reason, the result is the same.  Many of us have forgotten how to go about solving our problems without a lot of false starts, needless aggravations, and wasted time.

But I remember listening to my grandchildren, and they were the best problem-solvers around because they asked questions ceaselessly.  At their tender age, they seemed unconcerned about the effect on others of the questions they asked.  No question was too silly, no question too embarrassing, if it elicited an answer that helped to unlock the unknown.

For instance, on one occasion the problem had to do with learning to fish, and I got these questions from two of my granddaughters.

“Gramps, do worms feel the hook?”

“Hmm, that’s a good question, l’il guy.  I’m not sure.”

“If it doesn’t hurt them, why do they wiggle around so much?”

“Ah, well, worms are pretty wiggly all the time, right?”

Her younger sister, inspired, chimed in, too.  “Why don’t the worms drown, Gramps?  Do they know how to swim?  How can they swim with a hook in them?  Can they hold their breath?”

I couldn’t keep up with the barrage.

“What do worms taste like, Gramps?  Are they good?  Do fish like them?  What else do fish eat?  What happens if the fish aren’t hungry?”

Had I been able to answer with any authority, as confident in my answers as they were in the questions, much of the mystery of fishing would have been solved for my young interrogators.

In another situation, I had to consider these questions from my grandson, who was grappling with the existence of Santa Claus.

“Is there really a Santa Claus, Grandpa?  I mean really?  Who is he?  How does he get into our house?  How can he go to everybody’s house in the whole world?  He doesn’t make all the toys by himself, does he?”

Before I could reply, more questions spilled forth.

“And if he’s real, how come not everyone believes in him?  Do you believe in him, Grandpa?  Really?”

It was a very long time since I’d been the one asking questions like that—confidently and without inhibition.  But I suppose I did once, when I was the same naïve child.  Of course, back then I believed whatever my mother and father told me; and what they told me was that things would be just so if I wanted them to be just so.  It was really up to me.  As long as I was willing to believe in Santa, they told me, then there really was a Santa.  And if I believed the hook hurt the worm, then it did and I should act accordingly.

As a grandfather now, I’m not sure that’s always true, but I know I rarely if ever ask those sorts of questions of anyone.  Instead, I turn to the internet, which is, in itself, a problem.

Perhaps my best course would be to start asking questions again, even if I think I can’t.  And I should probably pose those questions to my grandchildren, see what advice they’d have to offer.

After all, as someone wiser than I once said, The final stage of wisdom is becoming a kid again.

And after all this pondering, that’s what I think, too.

So Late, So Soon

There is a song from a popular musical production that I’ve always liked.  Its opening lines run something like this:

Where is the little girl I carried?

Where is the little boy at play?

I don’t remember growing older,

When did they?

When I first heard the song as a young father, before ever seeing the play, it struck me as something to be sung by people much older than I, parents whose children had grown into adulthood.  Knowing now how quickly time can pass, however, I’m not so sure of that.

42709193-little-girl-being-carried-on-the-beach-by-her-father-she-has-her-head-on-his-shoulder-

This past year, one of my sisters welcomed her first great-grandchild into the family.  During that same period, a friend of my daughter’s sent her eldest child off to university for the first time.  Almost twenty years separates these two children from each other.

It seems to me, looking on from a vantage point somewhere between these two milestones, that the difference from one to the other is not so great at all.  Only yesterday, my own five grandchildren were infants; tomorrow, they’ll be heading out into the great, wide world.  And when that happens, the intervening years will have passed in the blink of an eye.

I find it fascinating to talk with my sister and my friend about their respective hopes and ambitions for these two children.  Although they’re speaking from different perspectives, their feelings are remarkably the same.

Whether still at home as a babe in arms, or off to school in a faraway town (as a babe in the woods?), each of these children is the object of a good deal of love and concern.  Each is seen by their families as being at the beginning of a long, exciting journey.  Everyone hopes the kids will be healthy and safe, happy and secure, and successful as they grow through the next few years.

Hart House 2012 (phot by James Marsh).

Both families pray the children will make the best use of what their parents are able to give them.  They hope the children will be guided by a strong set of values.  And they definitely want to keep open the lines of communication with their young.

Their most similar characteristic, though, is their tendency to care about and fuss over the children.  It matters not whether the kids are with them still, or out in the brave, new world—they worry.

In a way, I find that reassuring.

Of course, there are differences, too, in how these folks look upon their situations.  With my daughter’s friend, the mother of the university child, I detect a hint of resignation in her outlook, which is not apparent in my sister’s perspective.  It stems, I suppose, from the knowledge that she no longer exercises as much control over what her child is doing, or what might be done to him.  More and more, she can only look on as her son finds his own way.

mother and son

She appears to be at peace with this, however; she evinces a belief that most of what she will ever be able to do for her son has already been done.  Or not.  She doesn’t see her job as a parent as finished—perhaps it never is—but she doesn’t view it as the major focus it once was in her life.

She summed it up quite nicely on a recent visit.  Speaking almost wonderingly, she said, “There was so much more we wanted to teach him before he went off and left us.  But it got so late, so soon!”

In her comment, I hear an echo of that song I like.  My daughter’s friend doesn’t remember growing older, so when did her son?  It’s a song many of my friends are singing now, as their grandchildren continue to grow and strike out on their own.  It’s a song I, too, will soon be singing.

As Jack Kornfield, an American writer and Buddhist practitioner, has written—The trouble is, you think you have time.

time

So, I don’t complain that I’m too tired when my grandchildren still want to come visit me.  And I don’t say I’m too busy when one or the other wants to tell me all about their latest exploits.

For I know, as my daughter’s friend says, that too soon, it will be too late.