Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Socratic Method--Of Five Year Olds

Every day I buckle my kids into their car seats, walk to the driver’s seat of my minivan and prepare for an intense round of questions. The inquisitor is my five year old daughter, Heidi, positioned diagonally behind me, able to watch my profile, hands, and most important, my eyes in the rear view mirror. She needs no lie detector, no fact checker. Her barrage begins as I back the car out of the driveway when she’s certain that it’s just her, the open road, and a captive adult yearning to drive free.

Did you use your blinker? Is that car speeding? Why are we going this way? How fast can we go on this street? Why can we only go 25 miles per hour? Why aren’t there sidewalks? Would it be dark now if it were December? Why is that car green? Why does the driver like the color green?

Heidi can toss out five to seven questions a minute, depending on the length of my answers and/or pleas for mercy. If a typical drive is fifteen minutes, we’re talking 75 to 105 questions just trying to pick up a gallon of milk. But, let’s say she’s tired and is only able to ask three a minute, it still means I’ve formulated 45 answers in fifteen minutes, scoring more in a quarter than LeBron James does in an entire game, though, obviously, I am compensated far less for my work.

The only other people I know who deal with this kind of bombardment of questions are press secretaries. But, even they, at some point, have the luxury of saying, “that’s all for now, folks,” and walking off stage to be met by an aide, and perhaps, an ice cold Fresca.

In our car, the questions don’t stop until something forces me to yell, usually rather loudly, that a Mack truck is going ram our minivan into oblivion if she doesn’t cool it and, “let me concentrate on the road.”

That wins me two minutes (6-21 questions) of relief.

So, I feel no guilt or hidden fear that I am an inadequate parent when I say that when it comes to my five year old’s minivan inquisitions: I’ve cracked under pressure.

Example A:

“What is the name of the boy singing this song?”

You’d like to think this was an easy question, wouldn’t you?

But, let me first say that the song we were listing to was one we’d heard at least 107 times, the first on a mix-CD given out as a party favor. The mother of the birthday child asked each five year old to submit his or her favorite song, which leads me to the song in question.

Apparently five year olds are really into Coldplay. This fact depresses me because I am, only now, discovering that they are a band I should have known about five years ago.

What is the name of the lead singer in Coldplay?

“Ah....Chris?” I said, knowing this was only the beginning.

“Why did his parents name him Chris?”

I’d like you to now stand up, do five jumping jacks, hop on one leg and recite the first two lines of the Gettysburg address while trying to speculate why the parents of a British born rock star chose, on March 2, 1977 to name their son Christopher Anthony John Martin.

If only Heidi had asked me why Chris Martin and his wife Gwyneth Paltrow had named their daughter Apple, I’d have had a shot.

When you name your child after a piece of fruit you eventually have to share your thought-process, but most parents who name their sons Chris can go entire decades before ever being asked “for the record--why?”

“I....I really have absolutely no idea,” I said.

I should have referred her to chapter seven, article three of the handbook, “Questions I’ve Already Asked my Mom When She’s Going 60mph” but I felt compelled to rehash our previous discussion on the naming prerogative of parents.

“Maybe his parents liked the name. Maybe it’s a family name.”

Silence, tantamount to skepticism coming from back row.

“Do you like the name Chris?” I asked her.

It’s a classic move, to ask the interrogator a question in an effort to deflect attention, and it got me out of the hot seat on the Chris Martin issue.

But there would be others. Several hundred more that day, culminating in the ones asked during the second most popular time ask questions of mom: bedtime. Specifically, when we read books.

Catching me when I am weak is a key component to my daughter’s strategy. She smells fatigue and pounces.

Usually when we’re on the title page.

We can easily spend ten minutes and never get past the ISBN.

What is the name of the author? Where did they live? When did they live? Are they dead now? Why did they write this book? Did you read this book when you were little? Who gave me this? Why? Why did they think I’d like it?

I once invented what I thought was a brilliant, ripped from the parenting magazines, solution. I gave my daughter ten cards and said each one earned her the ability to ask one question. When she’d used up all ten cards, no more questions.

She loved the process of raising her hand, saying, “excuse me mom,”, asking a question, and placing each card in the growing stack of used up credits. But, when she got to the last card and realized her supply would not be replenished she had an uncharacteristic melt down.

“I don’t like this game!”

I’d have given it another go the next night, but I felt mean—I was “rationing” thought and that just seemed wrong.

But, answering questions all day is hard work. There’s the physical strain—actually speaking, using oxygen, using the voice, articulating ideas, all this done at times times when most people regroup or replenish. Do you drink a glass of water at lunch, or use that time to answer why you put mayonnaise instead of mustard on your turkey sandwich?

There is also the mental energy it requires. I recently drove to the dentist by myself and realized when I arrived how relaxing the ten minutes without answering questions had been. I was free to be alone with my thoughts and daydream about the imminent removal of tartar from my gum line. It was so peaceful.

But, there is something else that explains the absolute exhaustion I feel at the end of a day of questioning.

A five year old shaves ideas down to their very core, asking why...followed by why....followed by.....why.

Eventually, I feel a philosophical and somewhat emotional depletion.

How did she learn the Socratic Method while watching "Curious George"?

W.K. C. Gutherie is quoted as saying this in his book The Greek Philosophers, quoted on Wikipedia:

“Socrates was accustomed to say that he did not himself know anything, and that the only way in which he was wiser than other men was that he was conscious of his own ignorance, while they were not. The essence of the Socratic Method is to convince the interlocutor that whereas he thought he knew something, in fact he does not.”

Whereas I thought I knew fact....I do not. I am reminded of my ignorance on a daily, hourly basis.

But, that, as they say, is the first step to knowledge.

No wonder these five year olds ask so many questions....


Tim Morrissey said...

"Catching me when I am weak is a key component to my daughter’s strategy. She smells fatigue and pounces."

Brilliant writing, Sarah!

Liz said...

My three year old is fond of "What kind of...? For example. "What is that?" "It's a window." "What kind of window?" AARRGGHH!!

Anonymous said...

Sarah, you wonderful blog caused me to think about riding in a car many years ago with a former high school classmate, Julie Schoenamon (sp?) Johnson and her 8 year old, Cayce. Madison,WI. was in the midst of a sheriff's election. The political yard signs for one candidate read: NO TO .08. Cayce asked "Mom, what is .08? We looked at each other and burst out laughing with no clue where to start to answer that one.

Anonymous said...

And people question why Catholics believe in original sin. Give me a break people.
Seriously, Sarah, this is great stuff. Something I believe is that the relentless questioning by children is the intellectual equivalent to their physical development. Think of all the times they exercise their legs in preparation for crawling, walking, running, climbing, not to mention any intricate dance steps they might learn at Baby/Toddler Rumba Class. They have to ask questions, lots of questions, to get information but also to learn how to get information. Usually kids have better follow up questions than most reporters I know. And they certainly start an interview with this banality, "Talk about Chris Martin and why his parents named him that..." I hate it when reporters do that. Maybe Heidi could teach Remedial Interviewing for Mediocre Journalists.

Anonymous said...

Er...proofread, momchick...

They certainly WOULDN'T start an interview w/this banality...

Marketing Gurl said...

This is so know a lot of what I remember being a mom now is from babysitting. The little boy I babysat swore up and down that I ran a red light. Honestly...I wonder...I mean he said it around the time he was 3 or 4...and why would he that young don't lie to lie...he just made me question my sanity because I was always 100 times more careful with kids in the car...I love this have a smart one on your hands!

Cathy said...

With a 5 and 3-year-old of my own, I can completely relate to this. I have a firing line of questions from both car seats on every ride! Very humorous post - I love it!

Alyson said...

Hilarious. Heidi has a rapid fire mind, no doubt about it. I'm steeling myself for when Brett is that age and hoping I make it through with as much aplomb and humor as you Sarah.

Katie said...

Sarah - love the post. I read this and appreciate that Heidi is trying to understand the minds of others, e.g., "Why does the driver like the color green?" My 3 year old hasn't gotten there, and thus it makes it hard to rationalize with him, as in "your 14 month old sister may not like it if you sit on her" - he still can't quite understand that others have thoughts/feelings different from his own (termed "theory of mind" by developmental psychologists). So, if you have any patience left after all those questions, appreciate the thought and awareness that go into them!

Lucy said...

I was Kevin Baconned (!) over here from "I'd rather be sleeping..." and wanted to share that I especially liked the love and humor of this post. My respected father, God bless him, is never tired of arguing that the Socratic method is the best way to raise children (and I find I often judge families I see around the city by the way the poor put-upon parents respond to those endless questions...!)

Also, apropos of the word "Why?": an unforgettable discussion of the Socratic method of five-year-olds (among other things!) by Ronald Colman in a Frank Capra film:

Felicia said...

Mine are 8 and 10, and were suitably full of questions at that age. The 8 year old still is, mostly regarding words he wants defined. He's a "rules" boy. But my 10 yo daughter used to be FULL of questions, and now she's full of answers and she often answers the 8 yo's questions and that can be quite entertaining, so that I only have to intervene if true misinformation is taking place. Before you know it, your daughter will be chock full of knowledge she read in a book, heard at school or saw on TV. She may still be talking all the time, but you won't have to think as much ;)