What we need is not the will to believe, but the will to find out.
One of the most astonishing experiences for a parent is watching a human mind develop before your eyes. From the moment of birth, babies are sponges, soaking in everything they can lay their senses on. Wonder is pretty obviously present from the beginning—just look at the eyes of a newborn. Light, motion, temperature, shape, noise, and a million other novelties rain down on the little brain in the first few minutes, and the eyes register a mix of dismay, confusion, and wondering.
So there’s wondering. But for questioning we’ll need words. By the first birthday, kids will often have a few useable ones; by eighteen months they are generally learning a new word or two per day. At age four, they’re up to twelve new words a day, with amazing syntax and a sense of how to generalize the rules of grammar (like plural “s” and past tense “ed,” as evident in sentences like, “We goed to the farm and seed the sheeps”). At age six, the average child has a vocabulary in excess of 21,000 words. And we’re pretty much in the dark about just exactly how that happens.1
Which brings us back to wonder.
Wondering and questioning are the essence of childhood. Many of us bemoan the loss of wonder and the ever-greater difficulty of finding experiences and subjects that are truly untapped enough, and still interesting enough, for our minds to feel the inrushing flood of question after question that we remember from childhood.
Children have the daunting task of changing from helpless newborns into fully functioning adults in just over 6,000 days. Think of that. A certain degree of gullibility necessarily follows. Children are believing machines, and for good reason: When we are children, the tendency to believe it when we are told that fire is dangerous, two and two are four, cliffs are not to be dangled from, and so on helps us, in the words of Richard Dawkins, “to pack, with extraordinary rapidity, our skulls full of the wisdom of our parents and our ancestors” in order to accomplish the unthinkably complex feat of becoming adults.2 The immensity of the task requires children to be suckers for whatever it is adults tell them. It is our job as parents to be certain not to abuse this period of relative intellectual dependency and trust.
The pivotal moment is the question. How we respond to the estimated 427,050 questions a child will ask between her second and fifth birthdays will surely have a greater impact on her orientation to the world outside her head than the thirteen years of school that follow.* Do we always respond with an answer—or sometimes with another question? Do we say, “What a great question!” or do we just fill in the blank? How often do we utter that fabulous phrase, “You know what . . . I don’t know!” followed by, “Let’s Google it together,” or, “I’ll bet Aunt Sarah would know that; let’s call her”? When it comes to wondering and questioning, these are the things that make all the difference. We have 427,050 chances to get it right, or 427,050 chances to say “because I said so,” “because God says so,” “Don’t concern yourself with that stuff,” or something similarly fatal to the child’s “will to find out.” This chapter, you won’t be surprised to hear, opts for the former.
Though you wouldn’t know it from your high school English class, Mark Twain was a passionate nonbeliever and a heartfelt critic of religious thinking. Many of his late works were devoted to skewering, needling, and puncturing religious belief by way of satire—the most unanswerable yet underused weapon in the progressive arsenal. “Little Bessie Would Assist Providence” (1908) listens in as a precocious three-year-old innocently asks her devout mother questions about the nature of God. But unlike most of us, Bessie follows inadequate answers with more and more questions, until her poor mother is forced to simply order her into silence.*
My essay “Of Curious Women and Dead Cats” looks at the way the fear of curiosity—especially the fear of curious women—has been baked into the religious narrative since time immemorial, and makes the case for putting this fear to rest at long last.
Katherine Miller brings the mind of a scientist, parent, and wonder-enthusiast to the teaching of evolution in “Repurposing Noah’s Ark: How to Inspire Your Kids with the Science of Evolution.”
After Yip Harburg weighs in on the musings of a gorilla, I argue against counterfeit wonder, and the chapter concludes with author James Herrick’s exploration of one of the great avenues for the expression of human meaning and purpose—the arts—focusing especially on the place of literature in understanding the human condition.
* The figure 427,050 is an unscientific estimate of my own, based on the 78 questions I once counted from my daughter in a 2-hour period, times 5 (for a 10-hour day), times 365 days, times 3 years. Told you it was unscientific.
* This excerpt is only a single chapter of Twain’s hilarious satire. Though unpublished during Twain’s lifetime, Little Bessie is available in an early biography of Twain by Albert Bigelow Paine, as well as the compilation Fables of Man, edited by John S. Tuckey (University of California Press, 1972).