Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Ask, Answer, Repeat: Living with the Intensely Curious Child

I live with a child who is the most curious person I have ever met. Being her mother is wonderful and difficult and exhilarating and humbling (often all at the same time). In the grand scheme of things, my daughter and I have known each other only a short time, so I'm certainly not an expert. In the last two years, though, I have developed some coping skills for supporting her inquisitive nature while preserving my own sanity. Today, I'm sharing some of my tips with you (just in case you might have such a child in your family or classroom...and if you do, I'd love if you shared your tips with me, too).

Lucy is Twin A, the only one of my children to have been present to observe the birth of another one.

She lay there, first in the warmer, then in her dad's arms, taking it all in. I watched her blue eyes scanning the room, examining the corners of my eyes, moving all around as she soaked in the scene. She was remarkably alert and seemed to be carefully watching everything.  I briefly wondered if she could somehow be from another planet, using her birth to make notes to send back to her home about what she saw here.

Now she is three years old, and she is my perpetual observer.

Why is the goldfinch's beak so pointy?

Why did dinosaurs become extinct?

Do humpback whales have bellybuttons?

Why did the man in the song say "what"?

Why is there a baby sadding*?

What do I smell?

*sadding= LucySpeak for crying. She has a way of creating unique grammatical constructions to suit her needs and whims. Generally, we go with it. 

Lucy's constant task is Noticing. She always notices the tiniest of details, and her observations drive her ongoing barrage of questions. Being with her is like an automatically scrolling social media feed that is curious about everything and driven to master it all.

Life with Lucy is amazing, because she sees things I would never have seen.

It's also kind of exhausting.

I often think about how her days would be different if she were an only child. She wouldn't have to wait as long for me to answer her curious questions or respond to her demands ("Look, Mama. Look. Look. LOOK! No, put your eyes over here where I am!") She would have more books waiting for her on hold at the library that aligned with her interests. (I do such a good job supporting Sam's interest-led reading habits, but I'm not always as on top of following up with Lucy's or Nora's topics of choice.) She would have my full attention.

When we are alone together, I find her completely delightful. She's chatty, funny, and easy to be around. It's fun to take her out someplace and watch her as she watches the world go by...never passive, always taking on every little thing and dissecting it with her eyes and discussing it with me until I think there is nothing left to be said about it.

Of course, she always has something else to say about it.

That man doesn't have any hair on his head...do you think he's bald like Daddy, on purpose, or did his hair just fall out?

Why does that woman not have any babies in her shopping cart with her? Well, why did she take the big cart with the car on it if she wasn't going to put any kids in there?

Why does that boy have a Batman hat on? Do you think if someone offered him a Superman hat instead, he would take it, or keep the Batman one? Do you think he has Batman socks? Batman UNDERWEAR??
If we came back to this store again tonight or tomorrow, would I be able to splash in the puddles in this parking lot in my rain boots? Would those puddles still be there, or would they be ah-vahp-err-ated? Because I forgot to wear my boots right now.

When Lucy is one of the group of children behind me in our van, driving down the road, she is seated directly behind the driver's seat. She keeps up a constant flow of conversation and questions. In this situation, I find her more challenging, as she still expects the same level of attention and response as if we were alone together.

Perhaps she still deserves it, but I just can't keep up.

I want a song. No, not this song. I want Raspberry Beret right now. No! Not that part! I want the part where he says, "...in through the out door, out door..."

Is someone eating a mint? Why don't I have a mint? I smell a mint, and now I want one, too. Mama? Mama? Can I have a mint, please? If I can't have one RIGHT NOW I will begin to believe that everything is stupid and I will never like anything, ever again!

Why does my bear have this string on his paw?

What happened to the yellow crayon I dropped on the floor at Cracker Barrel last night?

Why is Sam scratching his leg? Does he have a bug bite?

Bite rhymes with Light. BiteLight Bitelight bitelightbitelight

I just saw Father Silvio driving a motorcycle. Yes, I did, Sammy. Yes I did too! Yes yes yes yes!

Sammy said I didn't see Father Silvio! And I did!

Oh, look, there's an inflatable gorilla! I'm going to be a blue gorilla for Halloween!
I just found a graham cracker in my seat. Oh, it's not a graham cracker, it's a french fry. Don't worry, I already ate it so you don't have to take it away from me.
I need a mint, I said! That old french fry tasted gross! I need something to clear the taste out of my mouth!

Sometimes, I want to cover my ears and say, "Ssssshhhh...I'm not answering any more questions until we get home." And sometimes, I do.

Living with someone so intensely curious about everything can wear me down after a while. Here are three ways I've learned to cope with the constant flow of information, questions, and observation that come from my little girl:

1. If I can't currently give her my full attention, I let her know when I will be able to listen.
Three-and-a-half year olds aren't always rational, but this actually works if I am consistent about coming back to her as I promised. She's very perceptive, so she can tell if I'm just stalling her. If I'm truly not available right-now-right-this-minute but will be in ten minutes or so, I can tell her that, and she'll often take a break from her questions.

If I fail to get back to her multiple times (either from forgetfulness or distraction or something else less forgivable), this technique stops working. She stops trusting me and taking me at my word, and that's bad for lots of reasons. I truly do try to follow up if she's been polite enough to wait.

2. If I don't know, I say so.
Lucy asks me a lot of questions that I simply can't answer. Some of them are unanswerable. Others just require research or the input of someone who is an expert in the field. Because we often look up the answers to the kids' questions, Lucy tends to take me at my word when I tell her I just don't know or that there isn't a good way to answer a particular question. I never pretend to know something if I don't. She would either see through it or find out later, and then I'd lose credibility and trust, which are very important to me.   

3. I go out of my way to show interest when I have the energy to do so. 
With everything that's going on around here and with homeschooling, particularly, I sometimes run out of energy before I run out of tasks. Keeping up with Lucy and her queries could be a full-time job. There are times when I'm just not willing or able to keep pace with her and be enthusiastic about her latest line of questioning. To compensate for these expected periods of inattention (when I say things like, "Oh?" or "I see," or "Isn't that amazing?"), at the times when I have energy to dive in with her, I really do that (and put aside all other distractions and tasks to be present with her). This makes a big difference. She's less persistent and aggressive with her questions, and I think it's because she knows I will be there with her for the big ones and support her process of finding the answers she needs to feel satisfied.

Sometimes, I worry about diminishing her, somehow...that my lack of ability or stamina or precision or attention to her queries will make her feel sad and cause her to stop asking questions, that she'll somehow lose her voracious appetite for knowledge about every single thing she sees or thinks about.

Then I realize she couldn't turn it off, even if she wanted to. It's who she is. God made her that way, and (deep breath of realization) God made me her mother.

If this is true, I must be up to the task, somehow, even on the days when she completely overwhelms me.

So I order some books about birds, put more birdseed in the feeder so she can watch the goldfinches, and hold on tight for what is always an interesting ride.

Pray for Lucy, will you? She has a new baby in her family. While this has certainly provided her with lots of new material for questions, it has also slowed my reaction time even more when answering them.

On second thought, maybe you should pray for me.

Do you have an intensely curious child in your life? How do you balance his or her needs with your own? What joys and challenges have you noticed from living with a child like this? I'd love to hear your thoughts.