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.
Read: The pandemic is changing my mind about having kids
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.
Read: There’s no going back to ‘normal’
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.