As I tucked my 5-year-old son into bed one evening this past spring, drained of all my energy and ideas, I turned to him in exhaustion: “What do you want to learn tomorrow?” The act of desperation, brought on by months of unexpectedly homeschooling my children, became something more. Every night since, I have given him the same prompt. And my wide-eyed son has countered with life’s biggest questions—at the very moment when, on the same cosmic scale, I am unlearning so much of what I used to know.
My generation, the Millennial generation, may not have been especially interested in history; many of us, after all, grew up during the purported “end of history,” an era of relative peace and prosperity. But history has made clear that it is interested in us. From 9/11, when many of us were in school, to the Great Recession, when many of us were launching our careers, to the COVID-19 pandemic, when many of us are becoming parents, we have repeatedly been jolted into the realization that our early-childhood years were an anomaly, that systemic shock is to be expected, that our lives will be abruptly upended again and again.
The pandemic should be humbling for us all, a rebuke to hubris about the nature of progress and the advance of scientific knowledge. Those places that have struggled most with the coronavirus have tended to be run by political leaders who resisted humility and failed to learn—from experts, from past outbreaks, from the blunders and the breakthroughs of counterparts contending with the same disease around the world. They claimed to have all the answers.
I, too, thought I had a good grasp of the world I was bringing my kids into. I don’t anymore.
In the early days of the pandemic, my wife and I would greet my son and his little sister every morning with a schedule of activities written in bright colors on a whiteboard, in earnest imitation of the school day we assumed they would soon return to. That whiteboard is now buried somewhere under the invading army of toys that has proclaimed a reign of low-grade chaos in our home. For a while, sporadic school Zoom sessions provided brief intervals of structured learning. But for preschool-age kids, despite valiant efforts by teachers and administrators, these were no substitute for school.
We are done with the virtual Cincinnati Zoo (the live ocelot show proved underwhelming), done with the virtual National Aquarium (how long can you watch jellyfish?), done with Mo Willems’s virtual art lessons (even the best offerings lost their grip on my kids’ imagination after a few days). Everybody is streaming something, but very little of it connects with my children.
That’s why I finally asked my son what he wanted to learn. Like many children his age, my son is insatiably curious. The questions poured forth: “What is God?” “Who made the world?” “Does space ever end?” “How does the weather work?” “How does my body work?” “How do emotions work?” “Why did the dinosaurs disappear?” “When will the coronavirus end?” “What happens when you die?” Every day now, we devote time to answering the previous night’s question.
As the new school year approaches, one unlike any we’ve witnessed in living memory, I’ve been thinking a lot about this makeshift schooling tradition I’ve developed with my son. These have been some of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had with him during the pandemic. But I’ve also been troubled by a paradox at work in each session: Over the spring and the summer, my wife and I were thrust into the role of our children’s primary educators, tasked with mass-producing answers, when we ourselves had more questions than ever before. One of the core contradictions of our circumscribed existence during the pandemic is that although each day in our personal lives may seem unchanging, it brings unprecedented change to the world around us.
I used to read a book to my son about a girl who tended to a seedling that grew bigger as she did, until eventually she and her father planted it in a park when she started kindergarten. “What’s kindergarten like?” my son would ask. I’d explain how he’d learn how to be a student while still having time to play with the new friends he’d make; how he’d be able to see his mother, a teacher, every day in the halls of his new school. I’d tell him that he would become a kindergartner around the time that the dead tree in our front yard came down; it was scheduled to be removed in the faraway summer of 2020.
In early March, we hurriedly and unceremoniously picked up my son early from school to drive to a wedding, in what turned out to be our last act of normalcy before we were all instructed to stay home. His school, which he adored, closed right after. On the day of his graduation from preschool in June, as we readied our laptop to send him off with a slideshow and a matrix of flickering, once-familiar faces, the tree-removal crew showed up, right on cue. As the buzz of the saw drowned out the Zoom festivities, my son gazed out the window at the falling tree limbs. What would I say now when he asked what kindergarten would be like, or when he’d be able to go? My answers were gone. I had no idea.
My children no longer ask every morning when they are going back to school; the not-asking is, in its own way, just as disheartening as having to repeatedly tell them “not yet.” But I know they’re listening to my conversations with my wife—to my conversations with pretty much everyone these days. As the psychologist Frank Worrell has observed, kids today “know something is happening, but they cannot see it, they cannot touch it,” even as “people are worried about it and people are talking about it all the time.” I want my kids to keep questioning what’s happening, to never stop wondering why one day they were suddenly plucked out of school and the world they knew disappeared. I don’t want them to be numbed by crisis into incuriosity.
So I’m using my son’s nightly questions as opportunities to investigate the world together. We watch a couple YouTube videos explaining the Big Bang theory and the creation story in Genesis, then discuss what we’ve seen. Or we Google an image of the solar system before constructing our own solar system with bouncy balls and a flashlight. We are learning together. We are confronting uncertainty together. I try to share in his wonder. And he loves it. He doesn’t need me to have the answers at the ready, so long as I am ready to explore his questions. He needs me to be on the journey with him—as a guide, yes, but not necessarily an expert one.
Alongside my children, I can examine what it means to grow up at a time of public-health emergency, economic upheaval, and reckoning on racial injustice, a time when there are more questions than answers. We can learn that this moment demands new answers, and that the first step in generating new answers is acknowledging that we don’t have the old answers to the old questions. I can speak as honestly and directly as possible with kids their age about what I know and what I know I don’t know, and teach them to do the same.
A child of parents who endured the Great Depression once told the oral historian Studs Terkel that he repudiated the lessons he’d learned “secondhand” from his folks: that young people must eventually forsake their idealism and instead face the hard “realities of existence.” Today, we are struggling to figure out how to transcend the old normal that failed us during the pandemic, how to address the existential challenges of our age, and how to build back a better and more resilient world. If we want to face today’s hard realities, but somehow manage to retain and transmit our idealism and sense of wonder, the key won’t lie in the answers we give our children—but in the questions we explore together.