How (and Why) to Answer All the Questions

In my younger growing-up years, my mother gave me a gift that I’ve since learned to wonder at. She answered my questions. All of them.

It was something to which she committed herself early on, and she stuck to it through the numberless what’s, when’s, how’s, and why’s that were to follow. My sisters and I were early talkers, with the child’s proclivity for curiousness and the feminine penchant for wordiness—exacerbated, perhaps, by our family’s four-to-one ratio of ladies to dad. The questions must have been incessant and fatiguing; there was, perhaps, the tantalizing dream of silencing every two-hundredth query with the quick snap of “Because!” But, instead, she answered. And what I remember is the delicious sense of being always on the edge of unfolding wonders, of opening worlds.

To trace out the lines of influence which have made you what you are may be as pretentious a task as untangling the Gordian knot, but I can’t help but contemplate the lasting results of my mother’s custom. Her habit of answering questions formed in me the habit of asking them—more effectively, I suspect, than any of the shiny toys and lavish curricula designed to “foster curiosity” could have done. Then, too, she introduced me to the pleasures and patterns of real conversation. She instilled into me the conviction that questions have answers, if you ask the right sources in the right ways. Perhaps most importantly, by her respect, patience, and consistency, she won my trust and love. Answering questions is relational as well as intellectual, nourishing the heart as well as the mind.

As a teacher myself now, I am learning to answer my students’ questions as my mother did mine. This is an art, and one I defy Siri to achieve. Siri assumes all questions are answered with information, which I’ll grant, if the goal is to produce human encyclopedias. But no: answering questions is not the same as giving answers, and this is where art enters.

Many questions, for instance, should be answered with “I don’t know.” And if this sounds to you like laziness, please refer to the first book of Plato’s Republic for demonstration to the contrary: for Socrates, to say “I don’t know” is to invite insight. So a child asks what an obscure word means. You could hazard a guess—or you could respond, “I don’t know; let’s look it up!” And you’ve taken the child on a quest for meaning, helping her learn how to quest on her own. A student asks about the significance of a seemingly irrelevant detail in a novel. You could brush the question aside, or devise a quick and flashy interpretation yourself—or you could muse, “I don’t know . . . why do you ask? Do you have a thought?” And you have nudged the student towards the anvil to forge an idea like a true apprentice. The resident smart aleck objects to your argument, saying it can’t possibly apply to all cases. You could fire back with a quotation of Aquinas that would reduce his upstart brain to a docile hamster (and sometimes, maybe, you should do this)—or you could count to three and say, “Well, I don’t know. Can you think of a counterexample?” And you have unsilenced the grand debates held within his own mind, to his great benefit. “I don’t know” may be the most powerful pedagogical tool of them all.

If that’s not strange enough, there are even some questions that should be answered with a variant of “Because I said so”—not the aforementioned “because” that silences curiosity, but the “because” that communicates authority. There is, perhaps, no honest question that ought to be squelched out of mere impatience. But, as Job could testify, there are myriad honest questions that are appropriately answered by a statement of authority, whether of the parent’s or teacher’s or Creator’s. To learn to identify these questions is to learn respect and reverence, worthy lessons for any wisdom-seeking classroom.

You see, so many of the questions that our children and students ask us—“What is this called?” “Why must I wait?” “Do I have to do that?” “Where did you go?” “When will we be Home?”—are the ones that we ask God. Someday they will ask Him, too. And our answers now will help them to trust His then.

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